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Blue Band and Margarine’s Morph into Meaningfulness

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By Larry Light, CEO Arcature Brand Consulting

Larry Light, CEO Arcature Brand Consulting

Brand revitalization requires finding and satisfying a new, important customer need. Brand success requires being the best at something relevant and differentiated. It means never taking your eye off of changing customer needs.

As veganism and vegetarianism diets become more embedded into people’s lifestyles, anything plant-based is now perceived as good. Plant-based foods and beverages are seen as healthy and planet-friendly, an image that appears to override the idea that processing also takes place in their production.

Margarine is a non-dairy spread that was previously marginalized due to its hydrogenation, which turns polyunsaturates into saturates and trans-fatty acids. Because of hydrogenation, and its non-buttery texture and taste, margarine sales declined over the last decade. But, now margarine is morphing into healthier fare, as margarine is naturally plant-based. And, hydrogenation is no longer used to make margarine firmer and texturally closer to dairy butter. Current alternative butter brands made from plants contain healthy unsaturated fats. Brands, such as Blue Band, that were derided as pale non-dairy substitutes are now desired as manufacturers update and revise ingredients. Margarine has now become a darling of the alternative dietary regime crowds.

Margarine has an interesting past. France’s first president (1848-1852), Napoleon III, the nephew Napoleon I, asked for an alternative to butter due to food shortages that affected feeding the French army. A chemist, Hippolte Mege-Mouries created “oleomargarine” and the rest is history.

Unilever built a global margarine and spread business that included over 100 brands including Flora, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, Blue Band. In 2017, after a very high-priced bidding war, investment firm KKR walked away with the prize, offering Unilever approximately US$7.7 billion (€6.8 billion). The acquired business was set up under a new corporate entity called Upfield.

Ordinarily, the terms brand revitalization and private equity are not commonly used in the same sentence, so kudos to KKR. Rather than starve the former Unilever brands, KKR saw an opportunity that could not be overlooked: the appeal and profitability of plant-based foods. With some recipe changes and new marketing, KKR could leverage its portfolio as a healthier and more sustainable way to eat.

Some products were jettisoned, but this was to be laser-focused on the brands that fit the overarching portfolio’s new positioning. This new positioning is clearly articulated on Upfield’s website… “We are the largest plant-based consumer products company in the world and we have embarked on a journey to deliver a ‘Better Plant-Based Future’ to the benefit of our customers and consumers alike.” Along with this statement is the commitment to sustainability including a policy paper titled, “A Better Plant-Based Future.”

According to Financial Times, Upfield is determined to change the image of margarine. By focusing on the sustainability of margarine, Upfield is altering its ingredient lists by “…reducing each product to around five natural ingredients to create cleaner labels.”  Financial Times reports that originally KKR intended to “…strip out inefficiencies but decided on a new strategy after spotting consumer appetite for ‘sexy’ plant-based foods.” Apparently, Upfield made the correct decision, as its net sales grew 1.3% in 2019. And, The Good Food Institute reported “… sales of plant-based alternatives to meat, dairy and eggs rose 11% year on year in the US to $5 billion in 2019.”

In the US, Earth Balance is one of Upfield’s biggest competitors. Earth Balance is a two-decades-old enterprise that makes vegan alternative butter spreads, nut butters and snacks. Its products are vegan, plant-based and non-GMO. The products have been designed to create “… a conscious, rewarding way of living.” As part of its philosophy is its original commitment to being “ethically plant-based.” The palm oil it uses is a non-GMO, non-hydrogenated oil. Earth Balance is involved in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), committed to environmentally and socially responsible palm oil production.

Upfield is also focused on sustainable palm oil. Upfield states that it, too, sources 100% of its palm oil from physically certified sustainable sources. Additionally, as part of its investment, Upfield is pouring €50 million into a new Food Science Centre in Wageningen, the Netherlands, that will focus on sustainability, health, and taste in plant-based food, according to foodnavigator.com.

The current eating scene is undergoing vast alterations. There are no clues as to which dining and cooking behaviors will last or fall away fast. What is clear is that the appeal of plant-based food alternatives is a growing customer desire. Revitalizing a brand by focusing on satisfying changing customer habits and attitudes keep brands relevant for enduring profitable growth.

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