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Unilever Bets on Plants

Posts good gains in Q4, but stumbles on the year.


By: Tom Branna

Unilever Bets on Plants

Back in the 1960s, the future, as told to Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, was plastic. Fast-forward 50+ years and the future, for Unilever anyway, is plants. In a review of fourth quarter and full year results, CEO Alan Jope said the company was restoring its underlying sales growth back to 3-5%, as it focuses on high-growth areas including plant-based foods and formulas in fast-moving consumer goods like laundry detergents and cosmetics.

According to Jope, plant-based formulas are part of an overall move toward sustainable formulas that should attract Millennials and younger consumers going forward.

“Young people in particular feel it’s time for businesses and brands to show more responsibility,” he insisted.

In addition to plant-based foods, Jope told analysts that the company is focused on hygiene, skin care, prestige beauty and functional nutrition. At the same time, the Unilever of the future is all about growing faster, through acquisition, a sustainable mindset, strong BtoB and BtoC digital channels and focusing on fast-growing markets. Bold moves after a rough 2020.

Sales fell 2.4% last year to 50.7 billion euros (nearly $61 billion at current exchange rates), but things began to turn around in the fourth quarter with China and India, its strongest performing markets, leading the way. In Q4, sales climbed to about $14.5 billion.

By category, skin cleansing saw mid-teens volume-led growth for the year, driven by the important role of hand hygiene in combatting the spread of COVID-19. Lifebuoy hygiene brand grew by over 50%, launching ‘H is for Handwashing’ an educational campaign to teach children the importance of handwashing with soap. Lockdowns and restricted living ed to lower demand for skin care, deodorants and hair care, which each saw volume and price declines, most significantly in the second quarter. Skin care declined high-single digit and deodorants declined mid-single digit. In hair care, growth in wash and care partially offset a decline in styling products, leading to a low-single digit decline overall.

Oral care grew with price growth more than offsetting negative volumes driven by supply disruption related to lockdowns in key markets in the second quarter. The prestige beauty business was impacted by door closures in the health and beauty channel, but achieved a shift to over 50% e-commerce, overall declining low-single digit.

Home care underlying sales grew 4.5%, with 5.1% from volume and negative pricing of 0.6%. Home and hygiene brands delivered high-teens volume-led underlying sales growth. Demand for products with germ-killing and antibacterial benefits was elevated throughout the year. Domestos grew over 25% after the brand launched in China and introduced spray and wipe formats. The living hygiene range of local brands grew over 50%, led by Lysoform’s educational campaigns in Italy. Within the fabric category, fabric solutions declined slightly, driven by lower consumer prices as Unilever passed on some of the benefits of reduced commodity costs in the second half of the year. Capsules and liquids continued to grow. Low-single digit growth in fabric sensations was led by Indonesia and by Turkey, where the relaunched Snuggle (Yumos) brand performed well.

During its press conference, Unilever said the company would either spin-off or create an initial public offering for its tea business. 

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