Should I Buy Unilever? 3 Pros, 3 Cons

by Tom Taulli | September 3, 2013 2:28 pm

This year hasn’t been kind to Unilever’s (UL[1]) shareholders, as the stock has dropped 1% despite gains of about 15% for the S&P 500.

But could that be an opportunity to pick up a bargain?

Unilever has generally performer well in the long-term, with an average annual return for the past three years of 16.5%. Its current 3.7% dividend yield is attractive as well.

But can we count on Unilever to climb back, or are this year’s struggles a warning sign? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons:


Global Scale: Each day, about 2 billion consumers use Unilever’s products, which are available across more than 190 countries, making UL the No. 3 consumer staples firm in the world. The company’s brand portfolio consists of four major categories: personal care (like Dove and Axe), home care (Surf), foods (Knorr, Hellman’s) and refreshment (Lipton). Presently, 14 of its brands deliver more than 1 billion euros per year in revenues, and seven other products are closing in on that benchmark. As a result, Unilever has the advantage of pricing power, economies of scale and leverage with distribution.

Product Innovation: Unilever has really stepped up its innovation over the years by upping its spending on R&D and continuing to make acquisitions. Some of the new products include Dove Repair Expertise (a shampoo that includes a smoothing system and hair protection), baking bags (nice sellers in South America) and Vaseline Spray & Go. Unilever has also been an innovator with digital marketing — most recently with Dove’s “real beauty sketches” campaign, which got more than 200 million views.

Streamlining: Since coming on board as CEO in 2009, Paul Polman has been working hard to cut back on bureaucracy, and he also has taken smart actions to reduce waste, improve the supply chain and modernize the information technology system. At the same time, Polman has been pruning the Unilever portfolio. Part of this has been through the elimination of low-margin SKUs as well as unloading various non-core divisions.


Macroeconomic Headwinds: Even though Europe has stabilized, it will probably take time for growth to return to the region. The situation is much better in the U.S., and even then the rebound has been sluggish, not to mention there are plenty of landmines ahead (including upcoming budget fights). However, emerging markets might be the biggest issue for Unilever. On the latest conference call, CEO Polman indicated that there has been a notable slowdown in Brazil, Russia, India and China. That’s bad news when 55% of your sales come from emerging markets.

Competition: Unilever must compete against biggies like Procter & Gamble (PG[2]), Mondelez (MDLZ[3]), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ[4]), Colgate (CL[5]), L’Oreal (LRLCY[6]) and Nestle (NSRGY[7]). These companies also have mega-brands and advantages of scale, and also have been focused on streamlining their operations and investing more on product development. Plus, an increase in discounting and promotions has put pressure on Unilever.

Commodities Costs: It’s common to see sudden spikes in prices, and Unilever has generally increased product costs to offset those spikes. While the strategy has worked — in large part because UL has premium brands — it’s unclear how long the company can keep relying on price bumps. Currencies have been another problem — rising U.S. interest rates have helped to tamp down emerging-market currencies. Because of Unilever’s big EM footprint, that drop has already had a noticeable impact on earnings.


Unilever must deal with some tough challenges, such as the slowing global economy and tough competition. But the company still has some clear advantages, particularly its extensive portfolio of brands.

And while emerging markets are looking weak at present, they still should offer the best long-term growth opportunity. Plus, Unilever has tremendous experience in this segment — the company has been in countries like Brazil, China, India and Indonesia for more than 50 years.

So should you buy Unilever? Yes — the company is likely to be a good performer for the long haul, and the attractive dividend should also be a nice boost.

Tom Taulli runs the InvestorPlace blog IPO Playbook[8]. He is also the author of High-Profit IPO Strategies[9]All About Commodities[10] and All About Short Selling[11]. Follow him on Twitter at @ttaulli[12]. As of this writing, he did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

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