Unilever’s Carb Options: will Canadians bite?

Canadians may have slim options in the voting booth, but at least they now have more options on the grocery shelf. Or that's what Toronto-based Unilever Canada is telling them.

Canadians may have slim options in the voting booth, but at least they now have more options on the grocery shelf. Or that’s what Toronto-based Unilever Canada is telling them.

Its new Carb Options lineup – imported from Atkins-crazed America – brings together familiar names like Knorr, Skippy and Hellmann’s under a new label. Realizing that most wouldn’t likely forgo their usual peanut butter for something unknown, the idea is that these trusted national brands – even if they are secondary on the light-and-dark blue packaging – will convince consumers to give the reformulated products a try.

Explains Geoff Craig, marketing director: ‘It’s always tough launching a new brand – and it’s expensive. So that’s where I think people trust our brands in terms of offering them taste and variety.’ During research, taste came back as a major issue among ‘low-fat,’ ‘light’ and ‘low-carb’ food connoisseurs.

But Unilever is taking a gamble that the low-carb obsession isn’t just a fad. ‘Depending on what poll or study you read, over 60% of Canadians are interested in watching their carbs or certainly have an awareness about it,’ notes Craig. ‘We’re in the business of looking after consumer needs and offering them [product geared at] the way they want to live their lifestyle today. We’re obviously hoping for a long-term movement or we wouldn’t have made this play.’

There’s also significant media investment behind the launch, although Craig won’t specify how much.

The ad theme is interesting enough. The Carb Options Party is a mock political group. Tactics encompass guerrilla efforts, such as a campaign bus, politically charged radio advertising from Toronto agency Ogilvy & Mather, and public stints by the ‘candidates.’ The main slogan is ‘zesty new options for a carb-conscious tomorrow and a tastier today.’

On a more serious note, print advertising explains the virtues of the new eats – that they’re low-carb and they taste great. The brand will also be supported via the Web site carboptions.ca, which is chock-full of recipes, and Ogilvy’s custom magazine Home Basics, while sampling is also a key component of the marketing strategy – for obvious reasons.

This is all so that when consumers come across Carb Options in the store, where the merchandise will most likely be distributed throughout the aisles and not as a unit, they’ll know what they’re looking at. Will consumers bite? Strategy asked three branding experts to weigh in. Unfortunately the prognosis isn’t good.

JP Lacroix, president, Shikatani Lacroix, Toronto

The execution of this strategy was extremely well done because they really talk specifically to the consumer need.

Unilever is very clearly differentiating [the product] as a low-carb option and making it very easy, in a blink of an eye, to make that distinction.

On the other hand, building brand equity around a fad could be disastrous because you look opportunist.

The real trend right now is called ‘balanced nutrition,’ and it’s about finding the right balance between weight loss and health – that’s what consumers are looking for long-term.

I think it would have been wiser to have looked at a balance nutrition initiative versus strictly low-carb.

The reality is the whole low-carb initiative peaked last year. I would say they’ve jumped into it about a year and a half too late. Had they gone in at the beginning, I think there would have been a positive halo, and they would have been seen as innovators and leaders.

They would have had three or four years of what I call ‘fad cycle,’ and they would have been able to capitalize on it.

Jeannette Hanna, VP brand strategy, Spencer Francey Peters, Toronto

They’re obviously trying to capitalize on Atkins fever, but it’s unnecessarily complicated for the buyers, which seems counter-intuitive.

When you look at the messaging on the label, you have the Carb Options huge, then you have this little ingredient, as in Hellmann’s or Knorr, and then you have info about the carb measurement. So there are a lot of competing messages there.

They could have accomplished the same thing with a banner [on the main brand] that says ‘carb-friendly.’ The brand equity in Hellmann’s and Knorr and the other national brands is totally sidelined, by Carb Options. There’s some potential risk of [doing that] in favour of the flavour du jour.

A lot depends on the placement in store, but if they’re separated that makes it even harder because if I’m looking for Hellmann’s mayonnaise which I always buy, and there’s this new thing with Hellmann’s tiny on it, it will be lost on me.

Somehow the visual language doesn’t support the proposition either. It doesn’t look more healthful. It’s a very convoluted and over-the-top response to a market opportunity. You could accomplish the same ends without risking your national brand equity.

Shirley Roberts, president, Market-Driven Solutions, Toronto

The Canadian market isn’t like the U.S. when it comes to food. In the U.S. they’re fad-driven and obesity is more of a problem.

When you go through the aisles in a U.S. grocery store, there are a lot of buzzwords on products and everything is over-processed.

Americans don’t eat well and they’re into whatever the latest gizmo is. Canadians are not like that – I do research for Longos and Canadians choose grocery stores for fresh foods.

I actually looked at Carb Options barbecue sauce in the store. I didn’t find a name of another brand [on the packaging]. Then I went to the back and it says Unilever.

They haven’t done a good job of branding Unilever as a food manufacturer. When I think of Unilever, I think of Sunlight Detergent, and I wonder why Sunlight Detergent is selling barbecue sauce.

Is there a dramatic difference versus Kraft? That would be my first question as a consumer.

You can’t do the carb comparison because the nutritional guidelines don’t give you the carbs [See Legal File, page 12]. So you don’t know how much better it is versus the option that consumers are dramatically more familiar with and trust.