Brand expert takes over reins of Unilever PH
Benjie Yap is a veteran in Unilever Philippines. He started in the factory team after getting his degree in industrial engineering from De La Salle University. He later went to the R&D department before becoming marketing director of the home care group.
Five years later, he became managing director of the food division. He was later assigned to Unilever Thailand and returned to the Philippines to assume the role of vice president for both home care and food before becoming vice president for sales.
Then in March 2017, he became the chair and CEO of Unilever Philippines. Here, he shares his reflections on his career in Unilever.
Q: You started in R&D before joining the marketing team of Unilever. How did 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 versus 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.
Q: Three out of four 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 on powder when detergent bars were 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 three of my four 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 do 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—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 rigor 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 have 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.
Q: 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 every day. Unilever especially developed a product to help the less privileged, those who need it the most. So we developed Pureit for $100 (P5,000).
People can now have a water filtration device that passed US Environmental Protection Agency microbiological safety standards, does not require electricity, and automatically shuts off once the filter needs replacement. With the option to pay $2-$3 weekly installments, we are able to democratize safe drinking water for all.
The USLP 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 Program. Domex aims to improve toilet sanitary hygiene in the country partnering with Unicef.
Q: Surf has been challenged by lower-priced detergents but has been able to defend and sustain its position. How does a brand attain and sustain market leadership position?
A: By being consistent and staying true to its brand purpose. Sometimes, marketers get bored faster than consumers and we change the brand’s identity without knowing it.
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.
Q: You lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Divisoria with your parents and siblings when you were young. What does your promotion as chair 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 every day until 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.
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 these 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 sacrifices 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 talents. —CONTRIBUTED
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