Responding to water shortages in India, Unilever launched Surf Excel Quick Wash, a low-foaming hand washing laundry product that requires minimal rinsing. In response to the need for sustainability in the detergent sector, the company’s Small & Mighty brand has been concentrated and requires just half the packaging of earlier iterations. When it comes to addressing global consumer needs, relevant innovation rules the day. Knowing which innovations to pursue requires vast consumer insight, including understanding how consumers feel about brands and technical brand claims. These insights define consumer needs, spurring research.
Unilever perpetually seeks new technologies with functional benefits, particularly in terms of aromatic tenacity, liquid concentration, improved solubility and sustainability, says Isabelle Esser, vice president of fragrance capability. And much of this work is carried out in cooperation with its fragrance house partners. “We have a process that’s internal,” she says, “but we also work with open innovation. All of those ideas go to the table.” Once an idea is generated it goes through several stages—including regulatory and safety, patent process, tech impact, and sustainability impact assessment—carried out by the company’s team of materials scientists, microbiologists, ecologists, etc.
One capability Unilever does not maintain in-house is fragrance formulation. As a result, says Esser, the company is “embedding fragrance in the way we work,” in order to leverage the best, newest and most on-trend technology supplied by fragrance houses. Unilever, she adds, approaches projects in such a way “to bring both roles together to build on one another.” As a result of this effort, the company aims to launch products with scents that are better than good—that provide an advantage and, even, a new business model.
“Everybody is learning from the recession,” says Neal Matheson, Unilever’s chief technology officer. “It has just made it really clear that if you can’t differentiate yourself in a way that is recognizable and aspirational to consumers, you’d better darn well get the cost down. You’re not going to be able to compete with a lot of me-too [products] at huge price premiums.”
Matheson identifies a clear distinction between “cheap” and “value.” “You’ve got to get the value equation right. The impact of the recession is that people will remember this [aspect] more. When everything was going gangbusters in the 1990s, if the value equation wasn’t quite right you could still probably get away with it. You could get away with a fragrance that was just ‘OK’ at building the concept and being consistent with brand equity. Now the consumer says, ‘I don’t think so—this doesn’t feel right.’”
Matheson sees this as a positive development of the current financial crisis: “It’s going to reward people who do their homework, get all of the elements right, create a really holistic design, and get the execution in the marketplace just right.”
When it comes to differentiation, Matheson sees fragrance playing a role as part of overall product concepts. A perfect example, he says, is Axe, an internationally successful body spray brand that proved many skeptics wrong. “That to me epitomizes some very good fragrances that are targeted to the concept. In the context of their brand equity and the actual line extension being introduced, they work great—they’re brilliant.”
It is just this sort of fragrance-driven success that leads Matheson to conclude, “We have to be much more focused on differentiation that the consumer actually wants and then leverage it in as many ways as we can.”
Unilever encompasses 400 brands—including Dove, Omo, Surf, Suave, Lux and Axe—spanning 14 categories of home, personal and oral care, and food products sold in more than 200 countries. Powered by 174,000 employees in 100 countries, the company achieved 2008 revenues of more than e40.5 billion and invested nearly e1 billion in R&D activities spread across five lab sites around the world. Leveraging its international scope and local insights, the company is a consumer product leader with a keen interest in the power of fragrance.
“Fragrance is an enormously powerful driver of consumer choice,” says Marcella Bartoletti, fragrance director for Unilever. “Our sense of smell triggers such strong emotions, and scent memory can be more evocative and longer-lasting than sight—that’s why I’m so intrigued by fragrance.” Isabelle Esser, Unilever’s vice president of fragrance capability, agrees. “Fragrance is so important for the initial [product choice], but also for consumer loyalty,” she says. “You could have a wonderful product that is good at what has to be done, but if the fragrance isn’t right, the consumer will walk away. I’ve been an R&D professional for years and years and I’ve never found another [product facet] that had such an impact on loyalty.”
Bartoletti gained her appreciation for the power of scent over the last decade, during which she held positions in R&D product and process development, and technical consumer insight for home and personal care categories. Since 2004, she has focused on bringing an increasingly coordinated, structured and universally applied approach to fragrance development for all of Unilever’s scented product categories with the aim of fully realizing each’s olfactive potential.
“Unilever has long placed great importance on getting the fragrances right for its brands,” says Bartoletti. “But we didn’t always leverage our extensive experience and size as well as we could have.” That has changed over the past six years.