Unilever still seeking expansion in CHC

Pressure has been building on Unilever over the weekend, with Nelson Peltz’s activist hedge fund Trian Partners reportedly taking a position in the UK group’s shares, adding to the challenges facing CEO Alan Jope. The Unilever boss is already facing brewing shareholder discontent after its attempted takeover of GSK Consumer Health, and now confronts a fierce activist fund known for demanding streamlining and governance reforms at consumer goods groups including P&G, Sysco and Mondelez.

Following a third unsolicited bid for GSK’s Consumer Healthcare business last week, Unilever brought forward an update setting out its strategic direction. An extensive review by the Board to reposition Unilever’s portfolio into higher-growth categories concluded that the FMCG player’s future strategic direction lies in “materially expanding its presence in health, beauty and hygiene”. The company added that consumer health was a “highly complementary category, with good potential for synergies and a number of routes to build scale”.

As our CHC New Products Tracker tool indicates, the priority brand for Unilever over the past two years has been supplement Olly, which has been expanded beyond its initial US launch market into the key growth market of China. Unilever has also invested in NPD for fellow supplements SmartyPants and Liquid I.V., since acquiring both brands in 2020, as well as Derma brands Vaseline and Lifebuoy, and there is clear scope for Unilever to expand its CHC portfolio further both geographically and in terms of category focus.

Nicholas Hall’s Touchpoints: Unilever’s latest offer for GSK CH, received in December 2021, was for a total value of £50bn (US$68bn), which the GSK Board unanimously concluded “fundamentally undervalued the business and its future prospects”. Following the publication of Unilever’s strategy update, it initially looked like the company would make a sweetened offer. It stated: “GSK CH would be a strong strategic fit; 45% is in oral care and VMS — categories in which Unilever already has presence and substantial capabilities. OTC would be an attractive adjacent category, with the ability to combine Unilever’s consumer and branding expertise with GSK CH’s technical OTC capabilities.”

However, Unilever faced a growing backlash from investors, with its shares falling and ratings agency Fitch warning it could downgrade the company’s “A” credit rating if it proceeded with the deal, which would likely raise debt. A few days later, the company announced: “We note the recently-shared financial assumptions from the current owners of GSK CH and have determined that it does not change our view on fundamental value. Accordingly, we will not increase our offer above £50bn (US$68bn).

Unilever has laid its cards on the table though and will no doubt be on the lookout for another CHC target. Meanwhile, GSK maintains that the “focus remains on executing the proposed demerger, which is on track to be achieved in mid-2022”, although analysts note that the MNC may consider a deal worth around £60bn (US$82bn). It remains to be seen whether other suitors, potentially thought to include Nestlé and private equity, will make a move.

Innovation trends by region will be analysed in the latest edition of Innovation in CHC from CHC New Products Tracker. This report will also take a look at delivery format trends, offer the Top 100 innovations from 2021, as well as innovation by leading marketers. To pre-order your copy and save with the pre-publication discount, or for further information, please contact melissa.lee@NicholasHall.com.

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