Unilever’s decision to launch a range of “natural” soups under its Knorr brand (MW last week) comes as the packaged goods giant plans to introduce healthier options to its big brands’ ranges on a global scale.
The new Knorr range, with five variants, will be positioned as a healthy option. Unilever says it contains the skin of the vegetables used, making the soups high in antioxidants and vitamins. Knorr portfolio director Darren Grivvell says: “At the heart of Knorr will be the mission to improve consumers’ lives through helping them eat better by making delicious and nutritious meals accessible to all people.”
Markets for the new soups, initially at least, are expected to include the UK, Mexico and Germany, as Unilever attempts to ramp up its competition with rival Procter & Gamble by building its global brand portfolio yet further.
Knorr’s move into natural soups is just the latest development for a brand that began life about 200 years ago in Germany and now stands as Unilever’s biggest brand.
The Knorr Company’s history dates to 1838 when Carl Heinrich Knorr, an agricultural wholesaler, developed a preservation process for dried soups, which he used to develop quick and nutritious food for factory workers. By the turn of the 20th century, CH Knorr employed 800 staff and became publicly owned.
Fifty years later, despite facing bankruptcy during the Second World War, Knorr’s core products of soups, sauces, bouillons and entrée mixes were sold across the world – a core offering which, critics say, the brand has failed to diversify from.
Under Bestfoods’ management the brand was managed locally and, observers say, developed independently in different parts of the world – a strategy that Unilever is setting about overhauling. David Hallam, food analyst at William De Broe, says: “Previously Knorr had product ranges travelling independently in different parts of the world when it would have been better to have, say, just four or five.”
Yet before Unilever acquired it in 2000, observers say the brand’s advertising retained an air of similarity, using the Knorr chef, often humorously, to sign off advertising campaigns. Under Unilever’s ownership, the brand’s image has been reviewed, backed by a multi-million pound investment, and repositioned away from what one observer calls “its stuffy image” of a dried soup brand.
Knorr entered the Chinese sauce market with Knorr Chinatown, while packet soups and stock cubes were repackaged. Knorr was also stretched to become the banner brand for the likes of Chicken Tonight, Simply Sausages and liquid stock product, Touch of Taste. Today Knorr is sold in more than 100 countries worldwide with annual sales surpassing £2bn.
Yet its global success is not mirrored in the UK. The reasons behind this remain unclear, though a lack of product diversity is often cited by market observers. Hallam says the brand has an old-fashioned image in the UK. “Cubes are rather old-fashioned and more people in the UK are buying ready meals,” he adds.
Grivvell says: “Knorr has a longstanding heritage in countries outside the UK, and is expanding into emerging markets such as Brazil, where it offers an affordable way to stretch nutritious meals further and enhance the basic taste of ingredients. Brand developers in six regions and both a global and local team based in the UK are working hard to move the brand forward through innovation.
“In the UK, the Knorr brand is consumed by 56% of households, more than Tetley Tea or HP sauce. Even Coca-Cola only reaches 60% of households. Knorr’s heritage in stock or bouillon and soup has built a brand worth £87m in the UK.”
While Knorr will not succeed or fail by the UK market, the brand has made efforts to make inroads into new categories to boost awareness and its presence here. Knorr is expected to make an assault on the chilled ready-meal market later this year (MW March 1), with the range understood to include dishes such as Chicken Korma, which will include Knorr sauces.
Further efforts to boost Knorr’s health credentials have included the redesigning of the Knorr Ragu pasta range to highlight the health benefits of its high tomato content. However, Knorr’s advertising in recent years has baffled some observers.
The ads for its Beef Tonight cook-in-sauce, staring Norman the Panda in his quest to find more interesting food than bamboo, was described by one observer as “not being true to the brand”. But he says that Unilever has a history of producing great advertising, pointing to work carried out for olive oil brand Bertolli, and believes it will get it right with Knorr. The brand, which has a UK media spend of £5.6m, recently won sponsorship rights for ITV gameshow Who Wants To Be A Millionaire (MW March 29), which Unilever hopes will enhance its profile.
Grivvell adds: “Knorr Tonight and Knorr Ragu are brands that were massively innovative at launch and hugely individual brands in their own right but until recently had little association with the Knorr brand. Sponsoring Who Wants To Be A Millionaire allows Knorr to unite our sauces brands in one place so consumers can see that they all come from one brand with a common vision.”
With Unilever undergoing a major restructuring, culling its weaker brands to concentrate on its core businesses, the future looks bright for Knorr. In fact, it has found a, perhaps surprising, champion in the shape of celebrity chef Marco Pierre White. He described Knorr’s chicken bouillon cubes as “the best ingredient in the world” and Unilever will be hoping consumers warm to its new soups with similar enthusiasm.
1838 Carl Heinrich Knorr builds a factory in Heilbronn to dry and grind chicory for the coffee trade.
1873 The Knorr company begins pack-aging and selling soup mixes.
1958 CPC International, a predecessor of Bestfoods acquires Knorr.
1997 Knorr Tastebreaks, a ready-meal concept, is introduced in the UK.
2000 Knorr products are sold in more than 50 countries around the world and Unilever acquires the brand.
2007 Knorr plans range of natural soups to tap into the demand for healthier foods and diversify the brand.