Q&A with Unilever PH Chairman & CEO Benjie Yap on Strategy


Benjie Yap, fresh from an industrial engineering degree from De La Salle University, started in Unilever PH’s factory team and later its R&D department before becoming Marketing Director of Home Care and 5 years later as Managing Director of Foods. He was later assigned in Unilever Thailand and returned to the Philippines to assume the role as Vice President for both Home Care and Foods before asking to be assigned as Vice President for Sales. In March 2017, he became the Chairman and CEO of Unilever Philippines. He shares his reflections about his career in Unilever.

Q1: You started in R&D before joining the marketing team of Unilever. How does this background help shape your mindset?

A: The same discipline applies – the curiosity to find out what the consumer values the most, how our products compare vs competition, are we giving consumers a better experience, are they willing to pay for what we are offering them. I think R&D provided a very good foundation, particularly on the consumer experience part.

Q2: From R&D Manager, you were promoted as Marketing Director even without experience in marketing. Would you continue this practice as CEO?

A: Reflecting on that now, I am grateful for the trust the company gave, probably before I even deserved that trust. It’s no different today, the main criteria is the role. If we trust anyone to take a senior role, then that person should be trusted with the promotion and given all the support needed to succeed in that role.

Q3: 3 out of 4 brands assigned to you as Marketing Director were struggling, but you did well in detergents when Surf’s Sunfresh was launched and you made a successful big bet in powder when detergent bars were then the norm. Tell us your insights and what these meant for you?

A: There are two parts to the question. The first part is the emotional resilience to persevere even when 3 of my 4 brands were struggling at that time. That time was not easy because you begin to question yourself and wonder if you are capable of turning things around. Ultimately some failed and some succeeded. I learned that the RESULTS of what we do at work does not always reflect who we are. For me it’s more about the process and the discipline. It’s all about the PREPARATION (did I go through the relevant consumer research, did I consult all the experts, did I talk to consumers and shoppers, etc.…) and the EXECUTION (did we spend appropriately to support the brand, do we have the right touch points, were they properly displayed on shelf, etc…). As long as these were done properly with rigour and discipline, I can live with the results, good or bad.

Now for the second part of your question, yes detergent bars were the norm at that time (almost 15 years ago). But if you look at growth trends locally and globally, as well as the proportion of women who were starting to join the work force and therefore has less time to wash clothes with a detergent bar, it was a good call to bet on detergent powders. The logic part was actually the easier part. Convincing and motivating the wider organization to believe and go all out behind this bet was the more challenging part. But ultimately everybody supported this because the trends were supporting this. We just had to overcome our own mental barriers.

Q4: Unilever entered the home water purifier market with Pureit, a non-FMCG product. What unmet needs are you satisfying? How does this fit with the overall strategy of Unilever?

A: Unilever strongly believes in our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP). We believe that we can do well as a company by doing good for society and they must go hand in hand. We can only help society with scale if it also supports us commercially, otherwise it will always be small scale. Pureit is one example. Millions of Filipinos don’t have access to safe drinking water everyday. Unilever especially developed a product to help the less privileged, those who need it the most. So we developed Pureit, for $100 (Php 5,000), people can now have a water filtration device that passess US EPA microbiological safety standards, does not require electricity, and automatically shuts off once the filter needs replacement. And with the option to pay $2-$3 a week installment, we are able to democratize safe drinking water for all.

The Sustainable Living Plan applies to all our brands, though some are at different stages. Dove believes in promoting Real Beauty because beauty is not defined by one dimension of beauty alone that’s dictated sometimes by society. Knorr aims to help reduce malnutrition in the country by helping make affordable meals more delicious, with strong partnerships with organizations like Kabisig ng Kalahi and the World Food Programme. Domex aims to improve toilet sanitary hygiene in the country partnering with UNICEF. There are many more. It’s very fulfilling to work for a company that aims to improve nutrition, access to safe drinking water, toilet hygiene, self-esteem and aiming to do all these with scale and help millions.

Q5: Surf has been challenged by lower priced detergents but has been able to defend and sustain its position the last few years and is now the third most penetrated brand in the Philippines (Kantar World Panel 2015). How does a brand attain and sustain market leadership position?

A: By being consistent and staying true to its brand purpose. Sometimes marketeers get bored faster than consumers and we change the brand’s identity without knowing it. Consumers look for brands they trust that stay true to their positioning and build on their mental availability. As consumer habits change, a brand should stay relevant, refresh how it engages with consumers with new touch points but should always remain true to its positioning. This discipline is important.

Q6: What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned when you moved to sales?

A: That all concepts are only as good as how it’s executed. And the best chance to getting your execution right is to keep the message simple. If we give instructions that are 5 pages long, no one will really remember anything. It’s our job as leaders to be choiceful in our decisions and instructions. Any ordinary leader can be smart enough to give a list of 20 things to do and easily justify why each and every one is important. But not all leaders will have the courage to decide and say ‘these are the three most important things I want you to remember’.

Q7: You lived in a 1-bedroom apartment in Divisoria with your parents and siblings when you were young. What does your promotion as Chairman and CEO of FMCG giant Unilever Philippines mean to you?

A: First and foremost for me, this is a tribute to my parents. We lived simple lives. I took a jeepney everyday til I was 20 years old. I never got to ride a plane until I worked in Unilever. In college in the 90s, when all of my classmates were using desktop computers I was the only one using a typewriter. It hopefully means all their hard work paid off. When I was young when my father took me to school, sometimes there’s flooding along Narra street on the way to school, my father would carry me on his back to cross the street so I can get to school dry. Whatever time I come home from school or from work, my mother would always have warm food prepared at the table for me. I have always hoped to do well in school and at work because I want to pay tribute to my parents.

But most importantly also to my wife, Karen. She’s also a graduate of Industrial Engineering and was already a manager at Accenture before having worked in Atlanta, Florida and Taiwan. But she also sacrificed and gave this up to support me in my career as I had to be expatriated and to have time supporting the kids. I would not be in my position today if not for the sacrifice she made. This is not easy when you are successful in your career. Ultimately all of us are where we are today because of things others have done for us. It is never solely because of our own individual talent.

Catch Benjie Yap LIVE (rare appearance, rare insight sharing) at the 11th Mansmith Market Masters Conference, happening on March 18, 2020 at Resorts World Manila. Register early (pay in January 2020). Visit www.marketmastersconference.com.

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