Unilever has been undergoing something of a facelift for a number of years, starting with the Path to Growth strategy that was introduced in 2000, which saw it shrink its 1,600 brands down to just 400 and cut thousands of jobs. But when Patrick Cescau took over from Niall FitzGerald as chief executive in 2005 the company also modified its corporate philosophy and so the concept of “Vitality” was born.
The initiative aims to create products connected to health and wellness. Unilever’s mission statement says: “We meet everyday needs for nutrition, hygiene and personal care with brands that help people look good, feel good and get more out of life.”
To demonstrate its commitment to Vitality, it has already rolled out a raft of new products including Knorr Vie, the fruit and vegetable shot drink containing 50% of the recommended daily amounts of fruit and vegetables, and Dove ProAge, designed for the over-50s. And last week it appointed Nitro to handle the pan-European launch of its Frusi range of frozen yoghurts, containing real fruit and wholegrain cereals (MW last week).
But some question whether Unilever can group brands as diverse as Flora, which it says keeps the heart healthy, to an indulgent treat such as Magnum, under the Vitality tag.
One advertising insider explains: “Vitality is something that informs everything that Unilever does. It has helped generate a whole set of tools to develop brands shaped by consumer trends and therefore attract both consumers and investors.”
But not everyone is buying into Unilever’s “touchy-feely” strategy and one critic calls it “rather woolly”. A City analyst adds that there is nothing new in the Vitality positioning. “Pure rhetoric is what this sounds like – plainly another marketing gimmick,” he says.
The first mention of Vitality actually appears to have been made by FitzGerald almost five years ago, during one of his lectures at the height of the obesity debate. He talked about innovation in food driven by consumers anxious for health and vitality.
The analyst also says that Vitality does not look very different to the strategy it replaced – Path to Growth. “It is a continuation of the strategic restructuring of the business that started with FitzGerald – spearheading the shrinking of brands and eliminating non-core businesses,” he adds. “The next obvious step was to focus on the remaining brands and ensure that all its products appeal to today’s more discerning consumers. Unilever can call it Vitality or give it any other name.”
But one advertising executive disagrees. He says that the Path to Growth strategy allowed the business to go from being bureaucratic and decentralised to a “tighter global company”, adding: “Vitality is about presenting the company and its brands as shaped and developed by consumer needs and demands. Consumers today are increasingly concerned about issues such as environment, health and nutrition. Unilever’s Vitality mission helps it to address these issues.” For instance, its “Dirt is Good” campaign is designed to encourage children to play outside.
Nitro deputy global chief executive Christopher Nurko says that Vitality also offers the company “big business opportunities” across its foods, home and personal care categories. “Investors don’t give a monkey’s about health and wellness, and consumers don’t care about business strategy,” he adds. “But if you can marry the two and get your products to align behind a single vision and strategy then it will help Unilever to be a leading global player in all its categories.” Sonoo Singh