Unilever Gets “Pro Activ” with Margarine

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  • Impact_flora_large

?What If! has partnered with Unilever, a $50 billion packaged-goods leviathan, on global innovation challenges for nearly 20 years. Working across most of Unilever’s businesses, ?What If! has helped develop a stream of new products and brand positionings, as well as growing Unilever’s overall innovation capacity. Recently we partnered with the company’s U.K. division to disrupt the healthy-food category.

The Product Works, But Sales Fall

Unilever’s non-butter spread—known as Flora, Becel, or Promise, depending on the market—is a category leader in markets spanning Europe, Brazil, and Canada. Its premium "Pro Activ" variant contains plant sterols that, if taken regularly, are proven to reduce cholesterol. Spread on three slices of bread and eaten everyday for three weeks, Pro Activ typically reduces cholesterol by up to 30 percent. Yet despite this genuine and powerful functional benefit, sales in 2009 were declining. Research showed that consumers were unconvinced it was worth paying three times the price of butter for products such as Flora, and that margarine lacked credibility as a health food.

We invested heavily in collaboration with the brand teams in each of Flora’s Pro Activ markets. To move fast, we knew we needed complete alignment behind the project.

The company bypassed traditional research and fast-tracked new packaging and advertising—hitting the market a year ahead of schedule.

Margarine as Medicine

We knew we didn't have much time to help turn things around for the Flora–Pro Activ business, so together with Unilever we adopted a high-impact approach to this challenge:

  • We deliberately expressed the challenge as brand innovation rather than product innovation, knowing that product development can be a tortuous process and sometimes distracts from the changes the business needs to make.

  • We invested heavily in collaboration with the brand teams in each of Flora’s Pro Activ markets. To move fast, we knew we needed complete alignment behind the project.

  • We focused on developing extreme positionings such as “margarine as medicine”—having learned that functional food innovation needs to explore the “edges” of regulatory approval.

Bypass the Research, Bring in the Revenue

The turning point came when we discovered that people connect with the notion that healthy food “deposits something good” in their bodies (like vitamin C from an orange)—an idea that was at odds with Flora’s marketing strategy, which suggested that Pro Activ works by removing the bad stuff.

?What If! recommended that the company tackle this issue head on and jettison the passive positioning of “helps reduce cholesterol” in favor of a more aggressive approach. Flora–Pro Activ was so taken with this “crushingly simple” idea, and so “bought in” to the process (the client’s words), that the company bypassed traditional research and fast-tracked new packaging and advertising—hitting the market a year ahead of schedule.

The resulting impact can be seen in the brand’s rapid “hockey stick” turnaround. Unilever’s profits grew 26 percent in 2010, and innovation within its Flora brand has continued its momentum, with Flora Cuisine, a cooking oil, hitting Tesco shelves in the U.K. in 2011.

Unilever’s profits grew 26 percent in 2010.

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FROM the greenhouse