Blog: Dean BestA note of realism from Unilever

Dean Best | 19 March 2009

Maybe it's me. Maybe I like a bit of doom and gloom. I do like Joy Division and The Smiths, after all.

However, amid the optimism bandied about by some during yesterday's (18 March) first day at the Retail Week Conference, it was almost refreshing to hear a dose of realism as the second day kicked off.

These are, after all, almost unprecedented economic conditions we're working in.

The job of gloom-merchant fell this morning to Dave Lewis, the chairman of Unilever UK & Ireland.

Lewis gave a lucid and well-thought out presentation that began with a series of recordings from UK consumers crunched by the recession and fearful about their job prospects.

Phrases like “I feel like a failure” and “I feel like I've let my wife down” flashed up on the screens as Joe Public talked about how the recession has hit them.

As Lewis returned to the stage, there was an air of despondency in the room. Perhaps it was the realisation that these are bleak economic times.

On occasion, it's worth pondering just how attuned well-paid business executives are into how the recession is affecting those in lower-income brackets.

During his presentation, Lewis displayed a stat he hoped would highlight people's changing behaviour. The number of foreign holidays taken by Britons, he said, have fallen by around a fifth in the last year. Notably, Lewis's quick straw poll of the room showed that most took a holiday outside the UK last year – and roughly the same would this year, too.

Unilever, Lewis said, recognised that consumers' priorities had changed, pointing to product innovations including Knorr Stock Pots, which aim to appeal to the growing desire to shun eating out for eating in.

As Lewis said, there are opportunities out there.

However, to grab those opportunities, it's first necessary to really understand your customer's desires – and fears – amid the economic turmoil.

And, this morning, Unilever injected a necessary dose of realism into a sometimes over-optimistic prognosis of the UK consumer.


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