For the last few years, Unilever — likely the world’s largest margarine maker — has been trying to figure out how to make spreads cool again in the eye of consumers. But despite its best efforts to adjust to changing consumers tastes, it looks like spreads are pretty much dead.
It’s Rough Out There For Spreads
During an earnings call this morning, Unilever executives were pretty upbeat: Sales grew, and all of its categories and subcategories showed growth — “except for spreads,” which declined by 3.7%.
To that end, the words “excluding spreads” were peppered throughout the callL Basically whenever Unilever had some good news to report, it was followed or preceded by, “excluding spreads.”
The Writing On The Wall?
To be clear, we’re not talking about mayo here: Spreads at Unilever mean margarine brands like Country Crock and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. Those products were shoved into their own category — a Baking, Cooking, And Spreads division — in Dec. 2014, as Unilever attempted to reformulate margarine and make it appealing to consumers who were getting into the “simple” foods trend.
Instead, it may have just ticked off the remaining loyalists it had: After debuting its revamped Country Crock product in 2015, Consumerist started hearing that the new formulation tasted like literal garbage.
Not content to accept such a claim on its face, we then teamed up with our colleagues at Consumer Reports and consulted an expert panel of taste-testers to determine if Country Crock was really all that bad.
Basically, we wanted to determine if Unilever’s new formula was ruining waffles, as some Country Crock devotees claimed.
Though panelists didn’t find the vegetable oils spreads to be as objectionable as some customers had expressed, they did confirm “off flavors” and some texture issues with the new formulations.
“Consumers who were used to a particular taste and expectation may be reacting strongly to any change in their coveted product,” the panelists noted.
Whether it’s due to changing consumer tastes or Unilever changing the taste of its products, the company is currently exploring how it can get rid of the spreads division.
After turning down a $143 billion takeover from Kraft-Heinz in early 2017, Unilever had to prove that staying single was a good choice — and that means getting rid of the dead spread weight: In April, Unilever announced that it was exploring its options to sell or spin off the spreads division.
That plan is still in the works, Unilever executives said during Thursday’s earnings call, without offering any other details about what may be in the works.
The question now, of course is: Does anyone actually want to buy margarine brands? Fellow mega-food conglomerate ConAgra already has products like Parkay and Blue Bonnet, so it’s probably not shopping for spreads. Kraft Heinz doesn’t appear to have anything similar in its massive U.S. brand portfolio, but would it — or anyone, for that matter — want to take on a line of products that consumers are growing less interested in?