Covid-19: When consumers cheated on Brands, so did the marketers

Updated: May 16, 2020



Epang Opang Jhapang! Some of you might remember this sonic identity.

It firmly established, the then GSK owned MFD brand, Horlicks on the platform of complete nutrition for kids. The Brand tagline summarizing the positioning with an apt claim of “Taller-Stronger-Sharper”. A decade later the brand has now changed hands, to become a part of Unilever. Horlicks was expected to strengthen the play for Unilever in FMCG foods. A category where the organization has had relatively lesser success in comparison to its own lofty standards, in the personal care and home care portfolio. A large part of the growth on Horlicks was expected to come from the distribution strength that Unilever has and the organization has definitely made the right first moves. With an objective to take category penetration upwards, from its current levels of about 25%, Unilever launched Horlicks in small pack priced at Rs.5.

Seems great till here expect for Covid-19. With the overall business under stress Unilever has now decided to deviate from the core proposition of Horlicks and position it as a brand to build immunity among adults. To be fair Horlicks has earlier targeted adults but through its sub-brand Women’s Horlicks and Horlicks Protein Plus, but never through the mother brand. Even while targeting adults Horlicks as a brand has never talked about immunity building. The only time Horlicks has spoken about immunity in the last decade was back in 2016 when for a brief period Horlicks talked about building immunity among kids through “2X immuno nutrients”.

So, to be clear if Unilever spends sufficient media money behind the new immunity campaign they would’ve re-positioned Horlicks as a brand that helps build immunity. The questions that arise hence are:

1) Why did Unilever re-position an iconic Brand? The answer is simple, its P&L management. Given that a vast majority of Unilever's personal care portfolio is under stress at these times, foods and essentials are the only way the company can meet investor expectations. The buzz word in essentials during Covid-19, is hygiene and that in value added foods, is immunity. Hence, because it could claim immunity benefits on Horlicks, Unilever went ahead and did it. Availability I must say is of utmost importance. The similarly the product in FMCG categories allows consumers to easily cheat on their Most often used brand based on availability. And when consumers cheat on brands, brands managers often are not left behind. After all, brands are there to cater to consumer needs.

2) Should Unilever have re-positioned the brand?

Immunity among kids-teenagers is an established need state in the MFD category, hence there is no doubt the positioning is tenable. However, this could have been better achieved through massive BTL efforts, PR, etc. instead of an ATL campaign which is not in line with the brand positioning. Brands often target secondary TG through tactical and BTL initiatives. There will no doubt be short-term benefits. Even in the long run given the increase in distribution itself, the brand might grow, where it had become stagnant with GSK. However, the risk in my view is too high. The brand can be seen as opportunistic and even develop lack of credibility. The MFD category is already facing heat on the question of added sugar in its products. At such a time deviating from a well-established positioning is risking a lot. Needless to say the price that Unilever paid to acquire the brand is largely because of its established positioning, which they’re now letting go. I must add the caveat that the brand content on E-commerce still talks about "Taller-Stronger-sharper" so this might just be a purely tactical move.


3) Did Unilever not think of the risks?

I’m sure they did. The thing about marketing is that, yes there is a lot of emphasis on data driven decision making, but in the end it comes down to belief. Unilever traditionally values awareness metrics over persuasion. This means that typically Unilever brands would chose to stay Top of mind with relevant communication to the consumer than to only talk when it’s relevant to the brand. With Horlicks, Unilever is staying true to its playbook. Immunity is within the health domain and so is Nutrition. Will it work or not, that’s for the consumers to decide.

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