Unilever Is Working Hard to Fight Climate Change, Preserve Resources for Future Generations and Assist Consumers in Their Quest for a Healthier Lifestyle.we Speak to Abhiroop Chuckarbutty, Vice President, Foods & Refreshment, Unilever Mena, About the Company’s Efforts to Drive Sustainability, How the Covid-19 Pandemic Has Impacted Consumer Behaviour, and How It Is Addressing the Need for Improved Nutrition and Wellness.
The Zone: Tell us a little about Unilever’s Foods and Refreshment categories in MENA?
Abhiroop Chuckarbutty: Foods & Refreshment is the second biggest division in terms of business and profit in Unilever MENA. The Foods division includes savoury items such as bouillon, meal-makers and dressings, where we have two main brands, Knorr and Hellmann’s. Our Refreshment division is made up of tea, with well-known brands such as Lipton, Brooke Bond Red Label and Pukka, and the Ice Cream category boasts leading brands such as Magnum, Cornetto and Max. Lipton is the biggest brand across all MENA divisions. It is an entrenched part of Arabian culture and enjoys a leadership position within the tea category across countries that make up the GCC.
The Zone: How did the pandemic impact consumer behaviour in the Foods and Refreshment categories?
Chuckarbutty: Early in the pandemic, a lot of consumer behaviour was shaped out of fear and anxiety. We, therefore, saw consumers stocking up in panic regardless of the cash outlay required. This was visible across almost all Foods and Refreshment (F&R) categories, with the focus being mostly on non-perishable items like snacks, canned food and Ready-to-Eat (RTE) categories.Snacking became the new pastime and, with consumers staying indoors even when working, the occasions for munching/snacking increased. Based on research conducted by IPSOS, 32% of consumers that we polled across MENA said they are now snacking more often, with 39% saying they ate more meals per day. With the onset of passive snacking, leading to dramatic overeating, consumers also observed a significant increase in their weight, making them search for healthier alternatives. Consumers also increasingly started alternate wellness practices such as intermittent fasting, while exercising more and counting their calories.
The Zone: What has Unilever done to address the consumer need for improved nutrition and wellness?
Chuckarbutty: To address the consumer need for improved wellness and nutrition, we have internal nutrition commitments. To achieve these, we have developed strict nutrition criteria that form the backbone of our product development. Our criteria aim to limit nutrients of concern such as salt, sugar and calories, as well as providing guidelines to promote plant-based foods. We also fortify our products where possible. Moreover, we ensure that we label our products to help consumers make better choices.We have also empowered people to cook more tasty, nutritious meals with varied ingredients in flexible ways to meet their lifestyles and budgets by providing a slew of recipes.
The Zone: What are the Foods and Refreshment categories that are seeing growth during the pandemic?
Chuckarbutty: From a category perspective, hot beverages, both coffee and tea benefitted, as the occasions to drink these have increased during the pandemic. Foods categories like bouillon, spice mixes, noodles, canned food and the Ready-to-Eat segment also increased thanks to the escalation in home-based cooking. Tea, coffee, juices, milk and cheese were among the key top 10 categories in which consumers claimed to eat and drink more.
The Zone: What are the rising trends during the pandemic that can benefit the Foods & Refreshment categories?
Chuckarbutty: As mentioned earlier, an increase in snacking leads many consumers to put on weight, which in turn has led to a preference towards making more healthier choices. Consumers have increasingly begun to consume more natural and fresh foods such as nuts, fruits and vegetables. They additionally started cooking more nutritious meals, with the manifestation of this seen in consumers adding less salt than usual, using healthier cooking oils and preferring the use of fat-free dairy. Slightly less than two-thirds of consumers claimed that they would maintain their eating habits formed during Covid-19 times. Another trend is the increased interest in foods that help to boost the body’s defence, building immunity.
This is seen as more and more consumers online search for immunity and fortification foods, adding vitamin supplements to their drinks and herbs to their teas and juices more frequently. Thirdly, Covid-19 has led to an increased preference for homemade food. With ample time on their hands during the lockdown and restaurants closing, consumers have discovered a newfound love for homemade food that is healthy, safe and delicious!
We also saw that in countries like the UAE, almost two-thirds of consumers said that they have begun cooking for pleasure now, consuming a lot of content on YouTube and other mediums for inspiration. Scratch cooking has become less of a chore as consumers resort to fresher and more natural alternatives. A lot of men have started preparing their own meals too, as well as helping their families to prepare meals.
The Zone: What should we expect in the near future?
Chuckarbutty: Going forward, we expect consumers to maintain the healthier habits acquired during the pandemic, given that it has shown consumers the
ease and benefits of having an active lifestyle. The increased ongoing focus on maintaining good health will continue, with consumers searching for fortified and immunity-boosting alternatives, even in the long run. Categories that gained initially during stock-up, not only as a result of stockpiling but also increased consumption, such as tea, will flow through into the future too. There will be more men cooking in the future than earlier this year, pre-pandemic, across the region. Brands that offer consistent availability across channels will win! Availability is key!
The Zone: What is your approach to driving sustainability?
Chuckarbutty: Our commitment to sustainability and contributing towards building a healthier planet and people is strong. Today, almost two billion people are overweight, and nearly a billion people go to bed hungry, while a third of all food produced is lost or wasted. Producing and consuming food is exhausting the earth’s resources and fueling climate change. We want to be a part of the solution, helping address this through our scale and reach. We are doing this by developing nutritious foods and healthy, balanced diets. Furthermore, we are globally expanding our portfolio into dairy-free and vegan options to allow people to make more plant-based choices.
Additionally, we are working to source our ingredients sustainably and support farmers and others who make their livelihood from working with us. We are working towards reducing food waste by tackling it in our supply chain and working with consumers to do the same.
- Lipton is the biggest brand across all MENA divisions
- 32% of consumers polled across MENA said they are now snacking more often
- Strict nutrition criteria that form the backbone of product development
- Providing guidelines to promote plant-based foods
- Slightly less than two-thirds of consumers claimed that they would maintain their eating habits formed during Covid-19 times.
- Covid-19 has led to an increased preference for homemade food
- A lot of men have started preparing their own meals.
- Almost two billion people are overweight
- Working to source ingredients sustainably and support farmers
- Working towards reducing food waste by tackling it in our supply chain