Q&A with Unilever Nutrition GM Kristine Go on Growing The Core

Kristine Alvarez-Go is the general manager of Unilever Nutrition for Southeast Asia and a member of the board of Unilever Philippines. She won the Asia Pacific CMO of the Year 2022 from Tambuli, among other awards. In this interview, she shares her thoughts about growing the core through fresh consistency.

Q1: You have been involved with many brands, categories and initiatives in your career. What steps do you suggest marketers do when they are assigned to take charge of growing the business?

A1: The first thing, as my people would always hear from me, is to never have too much ego that you believe you are the ‘savior’ of any declining business or challenge. In every new job, brand or category, always go in with huge appreciation for the leaders who have come before, regardless of what state the business is in. It is in humility that we deliver the best work. When we come in humble, we learn more, we absorb more, and the people around us tend to be more open.

With that foundation laid out, I would then follow with a strategy of creating growth behind the core, the biggest and most profitable part of the business. A lot of marketers believe that growth comes from innovation – new ‘toys’ that you have to build from ground up and have poor margins. My career, built behind growing the core (and not launching innovations left and right), is a testament that success is built behind solid foundations. By selling more of the stuff we have a leading position in, we grow significantly, profitably, and without complexity.

To many marketers, especially the young ones, the notion of growing the core is boring and unimaginative. I beg to differ. Creating real impact behind the core business is the most challenging (and rewarding) aspect of a marketer’s career. It is actually more creative to land something new and impactful behind a well-known brand / business; and when that happens, it is a fantastic legacy to leave behind.

Q2: How can marketers find the “true north star” of their brands or businesses? 

A2: The ‘true north star’ of any business is the core. The core is the biggest and most profitable part of any business (i.e. it pays our salaries!), and where the brand has a leading position in (i.e. market leadership). Continually growing the category, through penetration or premiumization, is to the benefit of the brand.

We all know that penetration is a ‘leaky bucket’ (from Byron Sharpe’s ‘how brands grow’). Our job as marketers is to continually create distinctive marketing mixes, so the brand is recalled and relevant at the point of purchase, and boost distribution to make the brand available in more places. Rather than core brand growth being a one-off activity, it should be a way of working – an ongoing process of idea development and implementation to keep the core business growing. This is the true north star, and something I never get tired to telling my team every year.

Q3: You and your team turned around the Selecta ice cream business from a two-year decline to finish 2021 with a double-digit growth. Can you share with us the behind-the-scenes story of this turnaround?  What was the insight behind promoting “happiness” during the pandemic period?

A3: The Selecta turnaround story is a great example of why we cannot lose focus on the core business. Prior to 2019, the Selecta ice cream business has been growing double-digit for years, behind core campaign renovation and increased distribution. Leading up to 2019, it started innovating massively through flavor variety and new impulse ice creams, resulting in huge cannibalization and minimal incremental turnover. With too many ‘new toys’, the innovations took marketing and promotion support away from the core, weakening the business that was fueling it. When the pandemic hit in 2020, the ice cream category was deprioritized with consumers tightening their belts, and in that time, Selecta responded by halting recruitment of new users and going media dark.

At the beginning of 2021, the first action was to stop almost all new innovations planned. With money being tight, all support had to be behind our biggest businesses – Selecta and Creamdae tubs, Cornetto, and Magnum. The year started with a core relaunch behind Selecta, behind its ‘creamiest-ever’ bestsellers, followed by re-airing of campaigns for Creamdae and Magnum, both of which were still relevant. For Cornetto, we had to pivot to a pandemic-relevant campaign – love amidst social distancing – and our biggest break was the collaboration with the newest loveteam, Donny Pangilinan and Belle Mariano; Cornetto being the first brand they endorsed.

The team also did a lot of cleaning up – we streamlined the portfolio behind the top flavors that made up the majority of the business. Portfolio simplification leads to complexity reduction in manufacturing, allowing us to produce more of what makes us famous, and bring down the cost to do so.

But the biggest impact to the business was landing our purpose campaign “HapPinas,” a play on the words ‘happiness’ and “Pilipinas’, making happiness truly local. The Philippines had the longest lockdown in the world, and many of our kababayans have been separated from their loved-ones. The one thing that Filipinos yearn above all else is being connected with each other once more. Through HapPinas, Selecta showed them that just because they are physically apart, it doesn’t mean they should socially distant. Through our wide distribution network, we encouraged Filipinos to share happiness by sending ice cream, and each purchase will also mean an ice cream for a community in-need (of happiness). See the full video here – (6) Here’s The Scoop: Si Red Ollero Nakahanap Ng True Happiness! #ShareHappinas – YouTube. This campaign, released in Q3 2021, brought Selecta to its highest growth in a quarter that is historically low because of rains and floods.

In the end, Selecta managed to turnaround its decline, and bring back the business to its former glory. In addition, actions on strengthening the core foundations remain intact. I’m truly humbled by the experience, and immensely proud of the cross-functional team behind this success. This story is one for the books!

Q4: Unilever’s food business has been growing and is now even bigger than the hair and home care categories, from just no. 3 half a decade ago.  What drives this phenomenal growth?

A4: I’m going to sound like a broken record, but the secret behind the phenomenal growth of the food business is relentless focus on the core. One of my famous lines during sales conferences is, “in foods, we are boringly consistent, but we are consistently growing.” I am proud of this, because it’s not something other businesses can claim. Truthfully, my slides contain the same campaigns on tinola, monggo, sinigang, sandwiches and salads – these are our top dishes, and getting more households to prepare them is our ultimate goal, year after year. Why? Because our brands are the undisputed leader in making these dishes taste great.

There is such a thing as “fresh consistency”. Growing the core requires consistency behind the brand’s distinctive memory structure – what made the brand famous – introduced in waves of fresh communication. It’s about saying the same thing in new and impactful ways. Across all of our brands, our ultimate goal is to get people to use it (i.e. consistency), so we introduce freshness by talking about how our product is made, how the ingredients are sourced, the impact it has on the dish, why the family continually likes the dish, new pack sizes, new occasions to make the dish, and more.

Every year, the question I ask the team is, “what are you doing to step-up growth?” The key word is “step-up” and not “reinvent”. As long as the brand remains strong, there is no reason to change our formula for growth.

Q5: What are your proudest marketing achievements?

A5: There will not be one campaign, as I am proud of ALL the campaigns in my lifetime, good or bad. They have made me into the leader I am today, and I have learned much from them.

Instead, my legacy would be the people who have worked with me, and who I’d like to believe I’ve had an influence on. Me, in my never-ending mantra of ‘core comes first’ and brilliant basics. I pray that I have moulded my people to be a better version of me, and I take pride in seeing them rise to greater heights. In turn, I have learned much from them, and like the brands I have led, they have had a hand in the leader I am today.

One of my favorite authors, Simon Sinek, said, “The true value of a leader is not measured by the work they do. The true value of a leader is measured by the work they inspire others to do.” Once all is said and done, I don’t think I will look back at the achievements of the past, but rather the learning I’ve gotten from them, and the people who have come along that journey with me.

Q6: Resiliency is important. Can you share with us a few failure stories that young marketers can learn from?

A6: Failure happens to everyone, but resiliency is important. One of the crucible moments of my life is my failed low-cost laundry detergent launch in Indonesia. It was one of my earlier days in Unilever, when I had just been named Brand Manager. We had a big brand under attack from local, low-priced competitors, and we believed that the solution is to flank competition with a new, low-cost brand.

I had a lot of ego back then – every single test showed that the launch would be a success, and we had won the hearts of the local sales team. But I compromised on little things, like diluting product quality to protect margins, and spreading marketing budget too thin by launching nationwide instead of having pilot markets. It was a painful lesson to be delisted in less than a year of launch.

Looking back at that experience, it reinforces my belief that opportunities are endless, but core growth is always key. Innovation is often not the solution to a declining business. I’m not saying that innovation is wrong. On the contrary, there have been successful innovations, but those are rare. Meanwhile, every company has a core business, and growing 1% on the core beats any innovation any day.


Kristine Go will speak at the 14th Mansmith Market Masters Conference  on May 17, 2023. Registration is available at https://marketmastersconference.com


Josiah Go is Chairman and Chief Innovation Strategist of Mansmith and Fielders Inc. 

See more articles on Growing Business.

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