Because of the breadth of its product portfolio and its global reach, Unilever is one of few companies that can say some 2 billion consumers in 180 countries use its products every day.
The company operates in more than 100 countries, has a healthy R&D budget (€928 million — currently about $1.3 billion -- worldwide in 2010) and boasts a dozen brands that each ring up sales of about €1 billion ($1.4 billion) annually. Best-sellers include Knorr (Unilever's No 1 brand in the world), Hellmann's (the No. 1 mayonnaise brand in the U.S.), Lipton (tea), Dove and Lux (soaps), and Sunsilk (hair care).
Food is an important part of this consumer goods company, accounting for slightly over 50 percent of the company's €44 billion (in 2010) sales.
Earlier this year, Unilever ranked among the 10 most innovative companies in consumer products and, in 2010, as the world's fourth most innovative company in advertising and marketing, according to Fast Company magazine. Based on your voting for our R&D Teams of the Year, Food Processing readers agree.
Culturally diverse, with top leaders from 22 countries, Unilever owns many of the most successful brands in foods, beverages, cleaning agents and personal care products in Europe, North America, Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Some 53 percent of its products are sold in emerging markets. They include soups, bouillons, ice cream, sauces, snacks, mayonnaise, salad dressings, olive oil, margarines, spreads and frozen foods.
Brands include Knorr, Hellmann's, Becel/Flora, Rama/Blue Band, Calvé, WishBone, Amora, Ragú, Bertolli and Slim-Fast. Unilever is the No. 1 global ice cream manufacturer, with such brands as Breyers, Good Humor, Klondike, Popsicle and Ben & Jerry's in the U.S. and international brands Heart, Cornetto, Magnum (recently launched in the U.S.), Carte d'Or, Solero, Wall's, Kibon, Algida and Ola.
Keeping that product pipeline full is a busy R&D team. "The R&D team in North-America works in collaboration with their global R&D counterparts to develop new products for consumers in the U.S. and Canada," says Stephan Habif, vice president of foods R&D. "The consumer wants it all and it is up to us to deliver.
"She is not ready to sacrifice indulgence for wellness, so we must provide both. She also wants to know that the product she uses does not have an overly negative impact on the environment or on the community in which she lives. We take all these aspects into consideration when developing new products or improving existing ones."
It is sometimes challenging for a large company to come up with innovative new products because there are so many layers to go through. Habif says that is not a problem at Unilever. "Everything becomes simple when you are guided by the following two questions: 'Does our consumer really want this product?' and 'Is she willing to pay for it?' "
He says the professionals on his team have a common drive. "It is to delight the consumer while reducing our environmental impact," he says. "They work on a variety of projects from new product development to value improvement projects [which improve a product's quality at the same cost or preserve quality at a reduced cost.]"
Describing his management style as "pretty informal and open, with an open-door policy," Habif says, "I truly feel good ideas can come from anywhere." He also points out that all the teams at Unilever "are truly integrated and work as a team with the other functions (manufacturing, marketing, purchasing, etc.) involved in innovation."
Unilever's recipe for R&D success
"Every R&D employee is truly passionate about the products they are working on," says Habif. "Their passion for our food and personal care businesses combined with a mission to help our consumers look good, feel good and get more out of life enables them to make successful products that consumers want."
Passion isn't the only ingredient. "Success also comes from a real collaboration between the diverse professions within R&D. Chefs, food scientists, process engineers, packaging engineers, nutritionists and microbiologists all work together to design products our consumers want and can afford while minimizing the impact on the environment."
How long does a new product take? "Some products can be on the market in a few months from idea to shelf, while others take years," he explains. "We are determined to reduce our overall time to market by systematically identifying and eliminating all the 'time killers' lurking in the project timelines. One of the key words in the fast-moving consumer goods industry is 'fast.' "
With such a vast portfolio of products, we couldn't help but wonder which products he is proudest of. "This is a difficult question, similar to having to choose between your children, and I am proud of all my children," he replies. But, also like a proud father, he highlighted a few outstanding accomplishments of his team.
First was the line of P.F. Chang's Home Menu (frozen dishes) launched about a year ago. "Our talented chefs and food scientists have been able to capture the essence of the iconic dishes served at the famed restaurants, while our process engineers used advanced, proprietary processing techniques to preserve the original flavor, texture and taste of the unique ingredients."
He also pointed to the recent launch of Magnum ice cream in the U.S., bringing to America one of the world's largest ice cream brands (available in 40 countries).
"The R&D team worked hard at implementing in North America a proprietary processing technology enabling us to make unique novelties, such as the Magnum Doubles that are made of an ice cream bar surrounded by a hollow chocolaty coating containing a liquid caramel or chocolate sauce." His favorite is the double chocolate variant: chocolate ice cream with a chocolate sauce covered by a real Belgian chocolate coating -- a chocolate-lover's delight!
Ideation sessions have a crucial role in new product development, but there are other avenues for idea-gathering. Habif emphasizes that Unilever is open on all fronts.
"As I mentioned before, good ideas can come from anywhere and everywhere: from new technologies enabling us to make products that could not or have not been manufactured before to consumer observations yielding really strong insights into unmet needs," he says. "We are constantly talking to consumers and customers and scouting for new technologies."
As for the challenges facing the industry and what keeps him up at night, Habif says, "Like all CPG companies, we are facing commodity cost pressures, so at Unilever we have a real responsibility to drive all the unnecessary costs out of our products to help our consumers enjoy their benefits."