Consumer goods manufacturers know they alter a recipe at their peril. Whenever a marketing spark proposes a product reformulation, the infamous New Coke will be invoked as an object lesson on the dangers of fixing problems that ain’t broke (though New Coke was, albeit inadvertently, to revitalise Coca-Cola’s fortunes after 15 consecutive years of market share decline in the US).
So how will history view Unilever’s decision first to reformulate Flora and, now, its embarrassing u-turn, in which the taste of the original recipe will be recreated?
Unilever has done its best to put a positive spin on the reversal, claiming it was “listening to our consumers’ feedback” - although whether it was the angry posts on various website forums or the 12.4% decline in value sales [SIG 52 w/e 11 May 2013] is moot.
” How will history view Unilever’s decision first to reformulate Flora and now its embarrassing u-turn?”
Adam Leyland, Editor
The obvious question here is: why didn’t Unilever listen to consumers in the first place? However, it’s inconceivable that a company of Unilever’s size and expertise, not to mention its corporate conservatism, didn’t test out the Flora reformulation in the first place. And research isn’t always easy to read: New Coke outperformed the original Coca-Cola in taste tests prior to its ill-fated launch, with only a small (ie about 12%) but obviously significant minority prefering it.
Comparisons with New Coke only go so far, however. Unilever waited 18 months to reverse its decision on Flora, as opposed to the mere 79-day delay before Coca-Cola reintroduced ‘Classic’ Coke. That suggests Flora was neither as well-loved as a brand, nor as much hated following the reformulation. To put it another way, Fidel Castro didn’t refer to the UK-only reformulation of Flora as a sign of American capitalist decadence, as he did with New Coke. And if Unilever can hold its head high, it’s that in one key area, it’s stuck to its guns: while Flora will revert to the original’s taste, it will continue to use a form of cold pressing called cool blending, introduced with the 2012 reformulation. This process preserves the natural goodness of the seed oil.
Unilever’s mistake was not to change the formula, which delivers a Health benefit. Its mistake was the fact that, unlike the reformulation of McVitie’s biscuits and the Mars bar, consumers noticed.