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Unilever and Nestle were fierce rivals for the #1 spot in the global ice cream market for many years, passing that crown back and forth several times since the 1990s. However, more recently, Unilever regained the lead and has steadily widened it. It has by far the biggest footprint, with operations in at least 70 countries worldwide, and a much stronger presence than its rival outside North America. Created from the acquisition of a patchwork of local businesses over many years, Unilever Ice Cream operates under numerous different corporate names in different countries, including Wall's, Langnese, Algida, Ola and many others. However all sell the company's international blockbuster products, such as Magnum, Cornetto, Solero and Carte d'Or. The individual regional businesses have also gradually been aligned under the global "heartbrand" umbrella and logo. Premium brand Ben & Jerry's operates as a separate unit. The group has sought to counter the surging popularity of low calorie rivals like Halo Top with its own range of "new age" ice creams like Culture Republick, launched in the US in 2018. Unilever's separate frozen foods business was sold in 2006, eventually becoming what is now Nomad Foods.
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Nestle and Unilever spent several years jostling one another for the title of global leader in the ice cream market. Nestle claimed to have overtaken Unilever in 2006 as a result of its deal with Dreyer's in the US; Unilever regained the lead in 2008 through the acquisition of Inmarko of Russia, and has continued to widen its lead by bolting on small players in, for example, Central & Eastern Europe and the US. In 2015, according to Euromonitor, Unilever held the top spot with global share of 22.8% by value, while Nestle had slipped to 10.8%. Third-placed General Mills came far behind at around 3% global share.
Performance varies on a market by market basis. Unilever leads in several key European markets such as the UK, France and Germany, and has a clear overall lead, with an estimated 22.6% share, compared to only 12.8% for what is now Froneri. However, the latter has the edge in Spain and Italy. In the US, Unilever lost its lead to Nestle in 2002, but clawed it back again in 2015 following the acquisition of local artisan brand Talenti. The latter brand has enjoyed a spectacular jump in sales since then. (See Unilever USA). However, more recently, both Unilever and Nestle have come under pressure from new challenger Halo Top, still for now independently owned. Canada, oddly, is one of Unilever's weakest markets - it ranks third there behind Nestle and local supplier David Chapman's. In China, now the world's single biggest ice cream market, both companies are dwarfed by local giants Yili and Mengniu, with 19% and 14% respectively. Unilever had less than 7% in 2013 and Nestle just 5%.
Unilever operates under a wide variety of heritage brands in around 70 different countries, but all brands except US-based super-premium Ben & Jerry's have been united since 1999 under what Unilever terms the "Heart Brand", a graphic device shared by each company. The group's many ice-cream businesses include Wall's in the UK, Breyer's and Good Humor in the US, Germany's Langnese, Eskimo (Austria), Algida (Czech Rep), GB Glace (Sweden and Finland), Frisko (Denmark), Miko (France), Wall's (Malaysia, China and other Asian markets), HB (Ireland), Algida (Greece), Algida (Hungary), Algida (Italy), Ola (Portugal), Ola (Belgium), Lusso (Switzerland), Holanda (Mexico), Hertog and Ola (Netherlands), Kibon (Brazil), Bresler (Chile), Streets (Australia), Tio Rico (Venezuela) and many others. In 2008, the group acquired Russia's biggest ice cream manufacturer, Inmarko followed a year later by Napoca of Romania. A series of other acquisitions have followed, including in 2011, Darko of Bulgaria. In 2017, the group acquired Australian ice cream maker Weis. Virtually all the regional companies sell the group's main international brands such as impulse products Magnum, Cornetto, Solero, Calippo and take-home selections Carte d'Or and Viennetta, alongside various local ice cream products. See also Unilever USA and Unilever UK for more.
Magnum is the world's best-selling ice cream brand by a considerable margin, with sales estimated by Euromonitor at $2.54bn in 2015. Cornetto is the global #3 at $1.6bn, followed by Ben & Jerry's with $1.2bn, US-based Breyers with $960m and Carte d'Or with $827m. US ice cream treats Klondike and Popsicle also feature among the Top 15 by global sales.
To support its cross-portfolio vitality message, the company began introducing low-fat versions of selected brands at the start of 2004. The first brand to get its own light version was Magnum, followed by Cornetto, Solero and Carte d'Or. In keeping with the rest of the Unilever food portfolio, the ice cream products are also being reformulated where necessary or possible to remove artificial additives and allow for a "good for you" positioning. Other "healthy eating" products have been introduced, such as Frusi, a low cal, low fat snack made from real fruit, cereal and frozen yogurt, first launched in France at the end of 2006 and rolled out across Europe in 2007. Take-up by consumers was limited and the product was later phased out. In 2009, there were press reports that Unilever was investigating the possibility of selling room temperature ice cream for customers to freeze at home, thereby reducing carbon emissions and pollution from refrigerated distribution trucks. The rumours were later denied by the company.
In the UK, Wall's dominates the local ice cream market, with an estimated 40% overall share, and retail sales of almost £480m (Euromonitor 2012), seven times higher than its nearest competitor (which is General Mills' Haagen-Dazs; Nestle has no direct presence in UK ice cream, where its brands were managed under license by R&R Ice Cream, now itself merged into Froneri). Instead its main rivals in take-home ice cream are supermarket own-label brands. In the "impulse wrapped" segment, it has approximately 60% share, compared to 20% for Nestle's local licensee Froneri, and 10% for Mars. According to IRI figures for 2016 (quoted in The Grocer), Magnum was the biggest branded handheld novelty by far, with sales of £167m, equivalent to all other branded novelties combined, with Cornetto the #2 brand at £37m. Froneri's Oreo ice cream was #3 at almost £16m. Ben & Jerry's was the top-selling tub ice cream brand with sales of £91m, supported by Carte d'Or (£51m). Rival Haagen-Dazs was #3 at £47m.
Two factors give Wall's its traditional stranglehold on the UK market. Although the company uses over 400 different distributors, the bulk of its sales - thought to be around 70% - are generated through a network of 32 exclusive concessionaires who agree not to deliver other brands of ice-cream. In addition, the company supplies branded freezers to its retailers free of charge, but traditionally did not allowed them to be used for rival brands. Inevitably the majority of retail outlets do not have room for more than one freezer. This led to repeated complaints from other manufacturers as well as from retailers. Mars forced a series of competitive inquiries into what they claimed were "restrictive practices" by Wall's during the late 1990s, and the latter was forced to open its own freezers to competitive brands in 2000. The longest-running such dispute involved Unilever's HB subsidiary in Ireland. This court case was initiated in 1990 and was only finally resolved by a European court in 2006 with a ruling against Unilever. At the end of 2007, there were cases still running in Germany, Sweden, Portugal and Italy.
In addition to wrapped brands, Wall's sells a variety of soft-scoop tubs for home consumption. Carte d'Or is the number one brand in the premium take-home Ice Cream sector. Other brands include Viennetta, Gino Ginelli, Blue Ribbon and low-fat Too Good To Be True. In 2012, Unilever's corporate venture capital arm gave financial backing to Snog, a small London-based chain of frozen yoghurt bars. The business continues to operate independently for the time being, but is to consider launching a range of products through supermarkets. In 2014, the group acquired US premium brand Talenti Gelato for an undisclosed sum. This was enhanced the following year with a deal for its Italian counterpart GROM. In 2018, the group acquired Romania's biggest homegrown ice cream brand Betty Ice. In 2017, Unilever sealed the terms of a joint venture with Ferrero of Italy to produce ice creams in Europe under that company's Kinder confectionery brand.
The biggest threat to Unilever's position in ice cream (also also Nestle's) has been the surge in popularity, especially in the US, of a new breed of health conscious low calorie ice creams marketed by Halo Top. These have eaten significantly into both companies' market share. Unilever responded towards the end of 2018 with the launch - for now in the US only - of Culture Republick, a new range of tub ice creams with low calorie content and also added probiotics. Offbeat flavours include turmeric chai & cinnamon or matcha & fudge.
Unilever's international network has proved enormously beneficial to its global success in each country. In several cases local companies in one market have created products which are now global bestsellers. Cornetto, for example, was originally developed in Italy in the 1960s and then refined in Belgium in 1975, becoming the dominant brand of the 1970s and 1980s. (It is also known as King Cone or Royal Cone in some countries). Magnum was first developed in Germany before being rolled out globally. Solero was introduced five years later with the aim of repeating the success of Magnum. Test-launched in the UK in 1994, it has since been rolled out globally. (Belgium is the only country where it changed its name - to Soledo - because the Solero brand name was not available).
The company now known as Unilever first got involved in the ice cream business in the 1920s, but the roots of the business can be traced back to the 19th century. In 1806, Richard Wall acquired a meat pie and sausage business from his employer, one Edmund Cotterill. He prospered and in 1812 received a Royal Appointment as a "purveyor of pork" to George, Prince of Wales, later George III. Richard was in time succeeded by his son Thomas, who in turn passed the business to his own son, also Thomas, in around 1875. Thomas II incorporated the business as T Wall and Sons in 1905.
According to company legend, in 1913 Thomas Wall was looking for a product to take up factory capacity during summer months, when demand for pork meat products traditionally dipped. A junior clerk suggested ice cream but the First World War interrupted those plans so it was several years before the product was launched. In the meantime, Wall's was acquired by Macfisheries, a company privately owned by Lord Leverhulme, founder of Lever Brothers. He transferred the business to Lever Brothers in 1922, and Wall's ice cream was launched the same year. The product was enormously popular and by the end of 1922, Wall's was churning out 150 gallons of ice cream a week. Wall's introduced the UK to the American concept of mobile ice cream sellers, operating a national fleet of 8,500 bicycles, and encouraging customers to "Stop Me and Buy One".
In the post-war boom years, ice cream consumption in the UK soared, with sales increasing over 400% by the end of the 1950s. The introduction of purchase tax on ice cream in 1962 dented sales considerably, forcing the company to sell off its mobile sales force - using vans now instead of bicycles - under the brand name Mr Whippy. Later that decade the ice cream tax was removed, and the market soared again as new chains of supermarkets sold ice-cream for home consumption. During the 1970s, the ice cream and meat businesses were formally split, after the acquisition of another meat products company, Mattesson's. In 1981, Wall's merged with Birds Eye; Mattessons Wall's was sold off in 1994 to Kerry Foods.
In the mean time, Unilever had steadily built up a collection of other ice cream companies around the world, including Streets of Australia in 1959, Frisko of Denmark in 1960, Good Humor of the US in 1961, Spica in Italy and VAMI of the Netherlands in 1962, Eldorado of Italy in 1967 and Spain's Frigo and Ireland's HB in 1973. Also during the 1970s the group made slow attempts to establish ice cream operations in South Africa, Singapore and Malaysia, but in all these markets progress was slow, the result of comparatively weak local demand as well as technical difficulties in distribution and manufacturing. The group acquired Gelato of Brazil in 1973, a weak competitor to local leader Kibon, then owned by General Foods. The following decade Gelato absorbed Nestle's ice cream subsidiary, also struggling, but only finally secured leadership of the sector with the acquisition of Kibon in 1997.
During the 1970s, Unilever's ice cream subsidiaries finally began to develop into more than just take-home suppliers with the introduction of the company's first major novelty brands. The first of these was Cornetto, a packaged ice cream cone originally developed by Spica of Italy. This had test-launched in the UK in 1964, but was a major failure. Held in stock for too long by retailers, the cone quickly became soggy. However the group's Belgian subsidiary developed new production processes over the following years, and Cornetto was relaunched in the UK in 1976. This time, the product quickly became a huge success, supported by an enormously popular advertising campaign, which adapted the Italian romantic ballad O Sole Mio with new lyrics ("Just one Cornetto; give it to me; delicious ice cream; from Italy...").
In 1977, Unilever acquired Italian bakery and ice cream firm Motta, and launched that company's high quality carton-packaged ice cream in France under the name Carte d'Or. Targeted initially mainly at catering clients, it was also sold through selected supermarket outlets as a take-home product and quickly gained a sizeable market among consumers as well. This encouraged the group to begin launching the brand in other markets as well during the 1980s. In 1982, the group developed another take-home brand, based on the idea of an ice cream and chocolate cake, based on an ice cream log product marketed by Langnese of Germany. This was launched in the UK in 1982 as Viennetta, and later rolled out elsewhere in Europe. However the most significant launch was Magnum, introduced in 1989. Another blockbuster brand, Solero, was introduced in 1994.
Having already established a presence in the upscale take-home sector with Carte d'Or, the group added a presence in the super premium segment as well with the purchase of Ben & Jerry's in 2000. That business was founded in 1978 by former hippies Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, with the goal of producing high quality ice cream using all-natural ingredients and fresh Vermont milk. They sold their products initially out of a single retail outlet, but products began to be sold through larger retail chains during the 1980s. In the most unusual aspect to the company's marketing, the company began a strategy of acquiring licenses from counter-culture figures to sub-brand new flavours. These included Cherry Garcia, licensed from the estate of Jerry Garcia, founder of rock group Grateful Dead; Phish Food, from the Canadian band Phish; and Doonesbury's, licensed from political cartoonist Garry Trudeau.
Last full revision 15th November 2017
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