The maker of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, Flora spreads and Hellman’s mayonnaise was among the first companies to set up telephone care lines in the UK, back in the early 90s, according to Phil Hood, consumer engagement centre lead for Europe at Unilever.
“These departments were seen as complaints departments,” Hood told FoodNavigator. “Then people realised that we were much more than that….The beauty of the care line is it allows us to get much closer to our consumers.”
He said there were now three access routes for the public to communicate with Unilever and its brands: Through letters, by telephone, and through online media, including social media.
“It’s making sure we have got easy access through to the consumers in whatever space they are operating in,” he said, adding that the biggest communication channel at the moment is email.
Coping with two-way communication
“Social media has brought a totally new dynamic into the business. It really gives the consumer a voice, which they haven’t had before. What we had before was a very much more controlled communication….How do we cope with that?”
Hood said the company’s strategy for dealing with customer feedback was constantly changing, but the crucial element was ensuring everyone in the customer care process was acting as one team.
“We want to make sure that the message we put out on the website is exactly the same as if they connected with us via email,” he said.
“…You have got to anticipate the questions and agree about what’s going to be said from the outset, and what to do when they don’t know the answer.”
Social media also gives the company an opportunity to understand and respond to consumers’ reactions to new or reformulated products.
‘We have listened…’
One of the most high-profile examples of this was the reintroduction of Flora Original in June last year, just 18 months after a £29m investment that was intended to make the spread ‘healthier and tastier’ for consumers. Hood said the new formulation had performed well in market research, but had some “really negative publicity”.
“Last year, we launched a programme called ‘back to the taste you love’, which was about saying ‘yes, we have listened to what you are saying’, rather than doing a silent change, and really invited people to comment on it. That went down really well.”
He added that even those who work in social media-based customer care are often amazed by how passionate people are about the brands – and it is possible to identify those people and bring them into brand extension work.