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Upfield (ex Unilever margarine)

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Upfield is the company formed in 2018 to manage the margarine brands previously owned by Unilever. That Anglo-Dutch giant was effectively a business built on margarine. Along with soap, margarine was the product which laid the foundation for the company, and the group remained the world's leading manufacturer by some margin until 2018. Growing consumer interest in healthy eating had provided a solid foundation for growth in the 1980s and 1990s, but those gains were steadily eradicated during the early 2000s. Instead, the group faced a daunting challenge in several markets from butter, which has regained its strength after years of being perceived as an unhealthy product. Another significant weakness in Unilever's portfolio was the profusion of different local names under which its products operated, which limited cost-sharing and coordinated marketing. Brands include Rama, Flora, Becel, Blue Band and Pro.Activ, themselves broadly split into two groups, referred to within the company as Healthy Heart and Family Goodness. In 2015, Unilever split out its spreads as a separate unit from the main Unilever Foods division, prompting speculation that it would ultimately to sell the business. An agreement was finally reached at the end of 2017. Private equity fund KKR acquired the company for €6.8bn, and re-established under the corporate name Upfield.

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Competitors

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Brands & Activities

Upfield currently dominates the global market in margarine, with an estimated 27% global share, and no significant global competitor. Growing consumer interest in healthy eating provided a solid foundation to the business for several years. However, recently, the group has faced a serious challenge in several markets from butter, now regaining strength after years of being perceived as an unhealthy product. Another significant weakness in this portfolio is the profusion of different local brandnames under which Unilever's products operated, which limit cost-sharing and coordinated marketing.

At the end of 2014, Unilever announced the split-out of margarine and olive oil spreads from the rest of the foods group. The new unit - Unilever Baking Cooking & Spreads, or BCS - was given greater freedom to take strategic decisions and radical action, but many observers believe the move to be a first step towards a sale of the business. The group denied such speculation, saying that margarine "remains a core part of our business. This proposal is all about reigniting the growth of our spreads business to drive Unilever's long term success". At the end of 2017 terms were agreed for the sale of the business to private equity fund KKR for €6.8bn.

Upfield's global portfolio of margarine and olive oil spreads is broadly divided into two brand groups. The bigger group is known as Family Goodness, and houses the main range of mass-market margarine products. Combined sales are around €1.3bn. The biggest brand in the portfolio is Rama, also the world's best-selling margarine. Although its core market is Germany, it is also sold in Latin America, Eastern Europe and North Africa. Shedd's Country Crock is Unilever's leading margarine in this group in the US, and the #1 margarine overall with sales of $390m and almost 22% share of the sector by value (IRI, 52 weeks to Jan 2014, all channels, Grocery HQ). It is supported by Imperial, Promise and Brummel & Brown. Blue Band and Stork are sold in the Netherlands, UK and a number of other countries.

Other regional brands include Doriana and Dorina in Latin America, Planta Fin in France, Solo and Planta in Belgium, Laetta in Germany and Milda in Scandinavia, Sana in Turkey, Tulipan in Spain and Delma in Eastern Europe. A new line of Rama was introduced in Germany in 2006 under the Rama Idee! banner, with added nutrients which claim to enhance mental development. The product was rolled out into other European markets during 2007. Other product variants beyond margarine include salad dressings, cream cheese alternatives and frozen yoghurts. In Brazil, Unilever sold the license to produce its Doriana, Delicata and Claybom margarine brands to local producer Perdigao in 2007.

The other margarine product group is known within Unilever as Healthy Heart, and comprises a range of low-fat spreads marketed mainly as Becel or Flora, depending on territory. The two brands share more or less the same logo even though they have different names. Combined sales are around €1.1bn. Becel is the leading healthy heart brand in continental western Europe and is also sold in Turkey, Canada and Brazil. Made entirely from non-hydrogenated vegetable oils, Becel contains no cholesterol and is very low in saturated fats, making it far healthier than other spreads. In fact, despite its recent popularity worldwide, the product was first developed more than 40 years ago as a nutritional aid for patients needing to reduce their cholesterol levels. The Becel product mix now varies considerably from country to country. Most territories offer the main Becel line as well as selected variations offering even lower fat content. Branded cooking oil is also available in a number of countries. In some territories, Germany for example, the brand has been rolled out across numerous other products beyond margarines and oil, including salad dressings, cheese, coffee creamer, even sausage.

Flora was launched in the UK in 1964 using a similar formulation to Becel and is now also sold in Australasia, South Africa, Arabia, Ireland, Spain and Central and Eastern Europe. For many years it was the UK's best-selling dairy spread, but was overtaken in 2007 by Arla's Lurpak butter, which has steadily widened its lead as the local market leader. The group began repositioning Flora in the UK in 2011 to emphasis its role as a family favourite rather than focus on its health benefits. Flora was relaunched in January 2012 with a new manufacturing process and a revised formulation designed to reduce the level of transfats in the product, thereby making it "healthier and tastier". Healthier perhaps, but consumers didn't agree that it was tastier, and the change prompted a sharp fall in sales. Trade magazine The Grocer reported an estimated 12% decline over the 52 weeks to May 2013. As a result, Unilever reversed its decision in summer 2013, restoring the flavour of the old Flora. Yet the slide in sales has continued. Flora's sales fell by another 10% in the year ending Oct 2014. The whole portfolio, which also includes Bertolli, Stork and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, had around 23% share of the UK white spreads market for the year to Oct 2016 (see Unilever UK for more). The company's main US Healthy Heart margarine brand is I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, also the #2 margarine in the US in 2013 with 19% share by value. It is marketed in France as Fruit d'Or. In the UK, the brand's name was changed in 2017 to I Can't Believe It's So Good in an attempt to curb falling sales.

Pro.activ is yet another variation, derived from plant sterols, a natural soybean extract, which appears to actively lower LDL (or "bad") cholesterol levels. Until 2008, the group also made the claim that Pro.activ reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease, but was ordered that year to remove that statement by EU regulators because of insufficient clear evidence. In most markets the Pro.activ brand has been launched as a spin-off from that country's main Healthy Heart margarine brand, with the result that Unilever markets Rama Pro.activ, Flora Pro.activ and Becel Pro.activ in different territories. The Pro.activ brand is marketed in the US as Take Control. In 2004 the group launched a range of Flora/Becel pro.activ milk drinks and yogurts in several European markets.

To counter the challenge from butter, the group has introduced several blended spreads since 2014, mixing both margarine and butter, including Flora Gold and Rama Mit Butter.

Financials

Combined sales for spreads were around €3.0bn in 2017. So far there has been little evidence of a lasting rebound following the separation of Unilever BCS as a standalone company. Unilever has not broken out figures for BCS but admitted in group results for 2016 that "sales in spreads declined as modest growth in emerging markets was offset by the continued but slowing decline in developed markets."

Background

Over the years margarine has undergone a substantial repositioning. Originally conceived as a mass-produced "artificial butter" for the poor, it has gradually been elevated to a far more respectable position as the healthy alternative to butter. The product was invented in 1870 in France by Hippolyte Mege Mouries on the instructions of Napoleon III, who required a cheap alternative to butter to feed his army. It was named margarine because the drops of fatty oil from which it was made had reminded their original discoverer of pearls, known as margarites in ancient Greek. The original margarine was very different from the product we know today, produced largely from oil of kidney fat, churned with milk and formed into hard blocks similar to lard, which were artificially dyed yellow to look more appealing. However the product was considerably less expensive than butter, and so the popularity of margarine spread widely over the following decades in rapidly expanding industrial manufacturing communities.

Much of the margarine industry had come to be concentrated in the Netherlands. Two rival businesses, run by the Jurgens family from Oss, and the Van den Bergh family from Geffen, specialized in the product and found the fast-developing industrial centres of nearby Britain to be an extremely lucrative market. The families agreed to pool their interests in 1908, splitting the profits between them, but the outbreak of World War I created problems for both sides, and the agreement was suspended. The demand for margarine grew substantially during the war, as butter became a luxury in most European countries. Van den Bergh and Jurgens both actively exploited this new market, introducing products into several countries in the region, before gradually establishing core brands such as Rama (from Jurgens) and Blauband/Blueband (from Van den Bergh). In 1927, the two families joined forces for a second time, formally merging their respective businesses as Margarine Unie.

British company Lever Brothers was also dabbling in margarine products as a sideline to its main business in soap - both products were derived from palm oil - and in 1930 Unilever was created by the effective merger of Lever Brothers and Margarine Unie. However, almost immediately the combined company was faced with a new threat to its business. The financial crash of 1929 quickly led to a dramatic fall in the price of raw materials and agricultural commodities, not least butter. Suddenly butter was once again as cheap as margarine, and Unilever was forced to find new ways to establish its competitive advantage. As a result, the company spent several years refining the quality of its margarine, and enhancing its nutritional benefit with added vitamins, thus forging the first associations between margarine and health. The first brand to be marketed along these lines was new Rama im Blauband, introduced in Germany in 1930, and made entirely from vegetable oils. Stork in Great Britain and Blue Band in the Netherlands were also reformulated.

Gradually the price of butter began to rise again during the 1930s and by the time World War II began at the end of the decade, margarine sales were back to their previous levels, especially in Europe. However the product continued to face fierce competition from butter manufacturers, and from governments keen to protect farmers whose livelihoods depended on butter sales. In the US, for example, several states initially banned margarine altogether and later imposed artificially high taxes on the product even until the 1950s.

During that decade, scientists had begun to identify the advantages of polyunsaturated fats in connection with heart disease and it was increasingly apparent that margarine could offer significant health benefits over butter. When it launched in the UK in 1964, Flora margarine was among the first food products to promote the concept of healthy eating. Although margarine had been around for almost 100 years, Flora was the first polyunsaturated spread, a concept so unusual that the company was actually able to turn the unlikely slogan "High in polyunsaturates, low in saturates" into a catchphrase. Tested in selected regional markets from 1964 onwards, Flora was rolled out nationwide by Unilever's Van den Bergh Foods division in 1968, supported by a television marketing campaign. Leaning heavily on its health claims, the brand was almost single-handedly able to alter the popular image of margarine, from that of a cheap substitute to a healthy alternative to butter. As sales grew, Flora gradually replaced Blue Band as Van den Bergh's best-selling margarine. The group also launched a number of other low-fat spreads including Krona in Britain, Laetta in Sweden and other markets, Effi in Belgium and Du darfst in Germany.

During the 1970s, growing consumer health awareness benefited the sales of Flora, especially after publication of a definitive 1976 study from the Royal College of Physicians recommending consumption of polyunsaturated fats to reduce heart disease in the male population. Shortly afterwards, Flora began marketing itself as the "Margarine for Men". In 1987, Flora overtook Anchor Butter to become the UK's leading dairy spread, a position it has retained ever since. Unilever has made several changes to the products formulation since then, introducing Low Salt, Light and Flora Buttery variants between 1989 and 1994. In 1993, Flora Original's fat content was reduced from 80% to 70%, meaning that it is now officially classed as a spread not a margarine.

But the group was already experimenting with other even more health-orientated formulations. Becel was first launched in the Netherlands in 1960. Made from maize oil and palm oil, with added vitamins and half the normal level of polyunsaturated fats, it was conceived as a dietary health product. The name itself was an abbreviation of "Blood Cholesterol Lowering", and it was sold initially only through specialist pharmacies. Circulation was widened to supermarkets in Germany and the Netherlands and a few other countries in 1963. It was launched in France in 1967 as Fruit d'Or. As a result of the growth of health awareness during the decade, the margarine was launched into the grocery sector in 1971, and it was followed by other varieties including no-cholesterol cooking oils.

In the 1990s, following research pioneered by rival Finnish manufacturer Raisio, Unilever began development of a spread with even more effective health benefits. Raisio had discovered that plant sterols, a natural soybean extract contained in low levels in several foods, actively reduced existing cholesterol levels when concentrated. The company launched its own spread under the name Benecol in Finland in 1995, and subsequently sold global rights to McNeil Pharmaceuticals, a division of Johnson & Johnson. Unilever quickly developed its own version of this formulation, and launched it in the US in 1999 as Take Control, the same year that Johnson & Johnson introduced Benecol there. The same technology was rolled out in other Unilever markets as brand extension pro.activ, tied to the company's existing margarine products. At the same time, the company initiated court action against Raisio and Johnson & Johnson in a bid to prevent them from using the Benecol brandname, which it claimed was confusingly similar to its own longer-established Becel. After several years of skirmishes, the case was rejected in most territories.

Last full revision 10th March 2017

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