From a humble trading business that the late tycoon John Gokongwei ran on his bicycle 65 years ago, Universal Robina Corp. has grown into one of the country’s largest food and beverage companies with market leadership in various product lines including candies, chocolates and read-to-drink tea and strong market positioning in instant noodles and powdered coffee.
Its long list of brands include Chiz Curls, Chippy, Nips, Jack ‘n Jill Potato Chips, Piattos, Maxx, Payless, Great Taste and C2, which are also enjoyed in foreign markets where the listed company with a market capitalization of some P300 bilion has been able to establish a strong presence.
But while it is in the essential food and beverage sector, it has not been immune to the adverse effects of the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic.
Nevertheless, it has been able to keep its factories and mills up and running despite the rolling lockdowns and quarantine restrictions to make sure millions of Filipinos can stock their pantries with essential food items they need while working or sheltering at home. It has also chosen to mark its 65th anniversary by focusing on its customers while taking stock of new challenges and opportunities ahead.
Here, URC Chief Marketing Officer Mian D. David talks to the Inquirer about how the group has managed to keep its brands such as Great Taste relevant to the market amid changing preferences and shifting formats.
Question: For background, of the many brands of URC, which ones are the top-tier brands, which ones are the fast-moving ones, and which ones are the babies that still need nurturing?
URC is home to some of the Philippines’ most iconic brands. Piattos is the #1 Snacks brand. C2 is the #1 Tea brand. Cream-O is the #1 Cookie brand. Cloud 9 is the #1 Chocolate brand. Maxx is the #1 Candies brand. Great Taste Coffee is present in 7 out of 10 Pinoy homes. Chippy, Nips, V-Cut, Nova, Pretzels, Nissin, and Presto are brands that many Pinoys have grown up with. They evoke delight and many happy memories. On top of this, we also have newer brands that we are nurturing, such as Vitasoy, Blue, Swiss Miss, and Calbee.
Question: Do you employ a different approach for each brand? Are there commonalities, in terms of approach or theme?
Our approach depends on our target market, source of business, and brand positioning. For example, the way we market Payless, a value-for-money noodles brand sold mostly in sari-sari stores, is different from how we execute Calbee, which caters to upper-class consumers who shop in supermarkets and who appreciate a Japanese profile to their chips. Having said that, regardless of the brand, we keep to our purpose: to delight the people we serve by giving them a better choice. Whether that better choice manifests in superior taste, better value, unique flavors, or accessible price points — we keep our consumers at the heart of everything we do for our brands.
Question: For Great Taste in particular, how has the marketing strategy changed over the years given the competition?
Great Taste considers itself a pioneer and an innovator. Do you know that it was Great Taste that catalyzed the White Coffee trend in the country? Back in 2011, our founder, John Gokongwei noticed that Filipinos liked their coffee with a lot of milk and sugar, so he thought of a 3-in-1 product that captured this unique taste profile. He called it Great Taste White, it clicked, and the rest is history. Today, 50% of Filipinos drink their coffee “white”. The nature of the coffee category has changed over the years, with intense competition and wider assortment. Yet the strategy of Great Taste remains unchanged – to discover and answer the unique needs of the Pinoy consumer.
Question: For years, it was forgotten and the market saw the domination of other brands. How were you able to put Great Taste back on the map? And perhaps top of mind now? How would you describe the Filipino instant coffee market, and how is it different across Asia?
We rediscovered what made Great Taste great, and that is, its ability to innovate and respond to consumers evolving tastes. In 2019, we launched Great Taste Caramel to answer the sweet tooth of many Pinoys. Soon after we launched White Crema, to answer those who prefer a thick & creamy profile to their morning cup. Meanwhile, Great Taste Choco caters to coffee beginners by combining the chocolate drink they grew up with and a mild coffee kick that they now need.
We also refreshed our brand communication. Our ads honor the “hard-working pinoy” — our source of inspiration and brand purpose. We’ve featured a nurse, dressmaker, baker, delivery boy, and working student in our ads. Lastly, we went back to basics: building distribution, showing up better on-shelf, and making sure our products are always available.
Question: How has marketing changed over the past two years amid the pandemic?
There are some things that have changed: Media has become fragmented and have moved more towards digital. Messaging needs to be relevant in the current context and should not be tone-deaf. Innovation must answer new needs such as health and in-home consumption. Distribution needs to include e-commerce. And yet some things remain the same: communication needs to be relevant, brands need to be authentic, product needs to be superior, and marketers need to be passionate about consumers. Times may change but human truths are universal. And Marketing will always be about understanding people and serving their needs.
Question: Where do you get the marketing ideas or insights? How does URC do it in-house or do you also get outside help?
The best source of marketing ideas are the people we serve: our consumers. We need to have a deep understanding of their behavior — for example, what, when, where, why, and how they eat our chips or drink our coffee. And beyond that, we need to understand them as people — their dreams, fears, aspirations, and worries. When we understand our consumers deeply, we can come up with products that answer their unmet needs and campaigns that are relevant to their reality. In URC, we do this in a variety of ways. Some through commissioned quantitative research, some through social listening, some through traditional FGD’s, some through harnessing big data, and some through simply talking to people and getting inspired by their stories.
Question: How do you think 2021 will end? How is URC preparing for this peak consumer season over the Christmas holidays?
Our economy is challenged and disposable income is constrained for a lot of Pinoys. So by and large, consumption is soft as Pinoys try to make do with less. This is both a challenge and inspiration for us in URC. According to a Kantar study, 9 out of 10 Filipino homes have a URC brand. With such a massive reach, and with economic realities weighing heavily, we at URC are driven to work even harder. To give our consumers products of superior quality and value, to delight them with our brands, to comfort them with the taste of the familiar.
When we hear about how Cloud 9 is a student’s small reward after the stress of online schooling, or how families bond over Piattos Party pack while stuck at home, or when we see Payless as part of ayuda packs… we feel fulfilled. It’s our small contribution during these difficult times. And it’s our purpose as a company.