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Unilever is an Anglo–Dutch multinational consumer goods manufacturer, co-headquartered in London, England and Rotterdam, Netherlands. Its products include food, beverages, cleaning agents and personal care items. Brands the company produces like Vaseline have been present in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa for a long time.
On Thursday June 26th 2014, the company held an event to spread the word about the importance of skin care where it showcased its products primarily to traders, shop owners and consumers as well. They were striving to give the most up to date and accurate information about the Vaseline brand line.
Capital’s Eskedar Kifle sat down with Maryanne Ibekwe, Research and Development Manager for skincare at Unilever, to talk about the company’s presence in Ethiopia, its products and the problem of counterfeiting; Excerpts;
Capital: Tell us about yourself and what you do at Unilever.
Maryanne Ibekwe: I am Unilever’s Research and Development manager for skincare. My portfolio covers the entire skin and face care brands, which in skin care would be Vaseline, Dove and a few other products as well as Fair and Lovely and Ponds for face care. My role essentially is deploying global technology mixes into Africa in a way that they reflect the African consumer’s requirements and testing and validating of all those mixes.
Capital: What is Unilever doing in Ethiopia right now?
Ibekwe: Well, this question should be best explained by my marketing colleagues. However, Unilever sees every user as a critical entity to their success and we have at the heart of our consumers the need to ensure that they get the most information to enable them to choose the right products that will best deliver to their skincare needs.
This is what we are doing here in Ethiopia right now. We have been spending time talking to Ethiopian consumers, we have been engaging and we have been visiting them. Tomorrow, I will be visiting a couple of people in their homes just to try and get a one – on – one insight into their lives, into their environmental factors that their skin is exposed to. It is critical that we understand the people and we tailor our mixes to provide a product that is best suited to the people.
We are also currently, as you have seen today, educating our sales teams, all our traders, clients, customers; they are the first connection to the product users. They need to be empowered with the knowledge of our technology and products so that when people come to them, they know exactly what they need to know about the products and they are able to advise them correctly. This is what we are doing here.
Capital: Your brand Vaseline has had its presence in Ethiopia for a while now. It is so well known that any Petroleum Jelly is referred to as Vaseline even though it is not and there is also the issue of counterfeited products. So how do you try to inform people about the differences and also warn them to stay away from counterfeited brands?
Ibekwe: First of all, yes this has occurred especially in African countries; Vaseline is a well established brand as it has been on the continent as long as the product’s existence. This explains why most people call Petroleum Jelly products Vaseline. But because Unilever has been at the forefront, we literally discovered Petroleum Jelly, so we know this product well.
We have started to educate people more about the different types of Petroleum Jelly products we have out there and how to best identify our Vaseline. The packaging is obviously different than the other products that use the brand name. We try to help people to identify the real Vaseline and empower them to choose which of the different Vaseline product lines are best for their skin.
With regards to counterfeits, they are a big threat and a big problem. Products that are successful tend to be counterfeited. Unilever’s response to this is to have a counterfeit management team. So this team acts on the basis of counterfeits that have been seen and identified. The way we identify the counterfeits is that often a consumer might use a certain product and feel that it did not work well. When they come to us with questions, we encourage them to bring a sample of the product they used.
When we get the sample and analyze it, the parameters show us if the product is genuine or not. If we find out that it is not genuine, we then send it through a counterfeit reaction procedure which sometimes could involve legal or criminal investigations if the case may be.
Counterfeiting is a very dangerous act because nobody knows what is in those products. So we take it very seriously and we have a whole team right up to a global level that addresses the issue.
Capital: How well established is Unilever in the African market, not just specifically to the Vaseline brand but also with the other brands?
Ibekwe: Unilever has been in Africa for many years, almost as old as Unilever itself, so it is well known. You mentioned that Vaseline is in every home and people know about it. So in Africa we are present and still very relevant. We often try and do deliver new technologies, new uses for our brand to keep our customers up to date with current trends.
Capital: Besides Vaseline , do you have similar promotional plans for your other brands?
Ibekwe: Currently in the Ethiopian market, you have Fair & Lovely which is another big brand of ours, so we support that as well. We support the products that are in the market in terms of technology testing and all of that. Vaseline and Fair & Lovely are the two products that are at the top.
We cannot always be sure about importers who bring the products into Ethiopia because they are independent business people. However, as long as it is a genuine Unilever product, it is okay. It is the same product as the one we bring in.
Capital: Regarding the brand Fair & Lovely, there is some controversy as people believe it is a skin bleaching product. What exactly is it?
Ibekwe: Fair & Lovely is not a skin bleaching product. It is specifically formulated to even out skin tone, to help the user take care of the hyper pigmentation and dark marks which can be caused by anything from insect bites to sun exposure. The uniqueness of Fair & Lovely is that it is based on a technology Unilever itself pioneered. It consists of an ingredient that works with skin not against it.
The research we have done on African black skin actually shows that it works by targeting the darker patches of their skin faster and by reducing the intensity of the discoloration to match the other parts of their skin.
Bleaching creams just bleach and cause damage to the skin if they are not used properly and under the proper supervision. Fair & Lovely is a product that you can buy and use, it is a safety qualified and guaranteed by Unilever as well as all the governments’ regulations.
Capital: When you bring in a product into a new market, how do you figure out what the customers need?
Ibekwe: We have two departments in Unilever that are professionally qualified to run consumer research. We have the consumer insight team and the consumer technical team. They go according to all the protocols of consumer research and those guidelines are very clear. They define where you go and how many people you should speak to. And then, apply statistical means to get the feedback.
All that is done according to established protocol of research.
Capital: Where is your biggest market in Africa?
Ibekwe: I am not sure exactly where our biggest African market is but we have a very strong presence in South Africa with the brand Vaseline, also in Nigeria and North Africa, we basically have Vaseline presence everywhere in Africa.
Capital: At this event you had the opportunity to speak to, traders, shop and salon owners. You have spoken to them about how to sell your products and showed them effective methods. Do you plan to communicate more with them to establish a stronger relationship?
Ibekwe: Thank you very much for this question. Today’s event comes from the fact that we have identified the need by the professionals who are engaging with the consumers directly. We have identified an opportunity to help them grow and help them in terms of better understanding the technology of our products and the way it interacts with the skin.
Today is a pilot but from the feedback we have received it looks like it has worked. I have been invited to support the development of further training and learning materials which we are going to target to salons, traders and spa owners.
It is something I am very interested in helping to drive because it is important for people to be empowered with the right information to care for their skin. So I do know for sure that there will be more communication coming down the line.