Unilever’s latest marketing move to have ‘little or no impact’ on sales

FMCG giant to curb ad activities targeted at under 16-year-olds globally

Unilever has also pledged to stop all school promotions of its F&B ranges.
Unilever has also pledged to stop all school promotions of its F&B ranges.

FMCG giant Unilever recently vowed it will stop marketing and advertising its foods and refreshments to children under 16 years of age, globally. “This includes our HUL food and ice cream brands in India,” a Hindustan Unilever spokesperson said.

The portfolio in question comprises ice cream brands Kwality Walls and Magnum, in addition to Knorr’s range of soups, instant noodles and ready-to-cook mixes; Kissan’s jams, squash and ketchup ranges, and health drinks brand Horlicks.

However, the marketing world, while largely lauding the move, is convinced this may not cause much of a dent in the sales of such products for a giant like Unilever. “I do believe this conscious and openly announced decision of Unilever is a good one. It will, however, have no impact on sales, direct buys, indirect buys and consumption,” business and brand strategy expert Harish Bijoor, founder of Harish Bijoor Consults, said. “In the age of social media marketing, you might switch off on physical market baits to the young, but switching off the digital market baits is well nigh next to impossible. It shall, therefore, be business as usual.”

In 2020, Unilever had pledged to stop marketing and advertising foods and refreshments to children under the age of 12 in traditional media, and under the age of 13 via social media channels. In essence, the new move is an extension of these restrictions to the age bracket of 13-16 years, and comes in as a reaction to Food & Beverage (F&B) industry watchdogs globally criticising the high content of sugar, salt, and/or fat content in packaged foods products. 

Furthermore, for an overwhelming majority of Unilever products, and especially for HUL in India, the marketing target is the housewife, as she is often the decision-maker for such products at home. Hence, the overall sales may not be significantly impacted. “I believe that the ubiquitous distribution of its ice cream brands, especially the ice cream carts, will be another mitigating factor to a large extent,” brand consultant Samit Sinha, managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting, said.

To an extent, one company not targeting an age group profile of 16 years and below is “not enough”, according to analysts. “You need every company, MNC, non-MNC, big, small, medium and micro, to participate in this ethos. Till that happens, every other marketing company will continue fuelling the “new underage market” into more and more consumption. And that shall benefit all,” Bijoor added. “For now, this is a philosophical lead. It needs to convert into practical consumption economics. That will take time.”
Unilever has also pledged to stop all school promotions of its F&B ranges. This could include all the essay contests sponsored by brands, school sports sponsorships, stoppage of ads in school brochures and annual books, etc.

“I believe that since it is going to be self-regulated, the most obvious change will probably be in the company’s communication content, where it will no longer depict those below 16 years of age as consuming such brands,” Sinha said. This means the change is more likely to happen in the creative content of their communication and not so much in their media choices.

Even if the media mix were to change for HUL — it may not advertise on TV channels targeting pre-teens or teenagers, for instance — one wonders if the abstinence will be as widespread as the company wishes. Often, children watch shows with their families, and may catch the ads on other TV channels, since viewing is still not in strict silos for these age groups. “It is important for Unilever in India to not only announce this benign plan, but also for it to set up independent audit mechanisms to assess who is still slipping through the slats,” Bijoor said. It, therefore, all boils down to the actual implementation, according to analysts.

Eventually, companies like Nestle, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company and Unilever may move beyond such marketing norms to actually foraying deeply into producing healthier products, analysts say. But such product re-engineering looks like it may happen much later, rather than sooner, according to Bijoor. “Gradually, society will categorise companies into ‘good for you’ and ‘bad for you’ boxes. No company will want to belong to the latter,” he said.

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