Nikita Mishra
Feb 14, 2024

The CMO's MO: 'You cannot take loyalty for granted' says Unilever International's Nitin Agarwal

Amidst heightened consumer polarisation, where traditional discount strategies are losing their edge, Unilever International’s CMO Nitin Agarwal has a plan for growth. The key? A dynamic, impact-driven approach that boldly challenges the status quo.

The CMO's MO: 'You cannot take loyalty for granted' says Unilever International's Nitin Agarwal

The CMO's MO: 9 questions with dynamic APAC marketing leaders, insights and personalities revealed. 

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In the ever-evolving consumer goods landscape, Unilever International’s strategy to attract, retain, and grow its customer base piques the interest of many. It’s a textbook example of targeting sustainable development and innovation. The FMCG juggernaut has a niche in understanding its target audience in diverse markets and staying true to its core value of making sustainable living commonplace. At the helm of this transformative journey is chief marketing officer Nitin Agarwal, who fosters the commitment to sustainable development all too well and understands that adaptability and boardroom tactic-shifting are needed to stay relevant.

Campaign sat down with the Singapore-based marketer who spearheads Unilever’s white space-focused business unit. With over 19 years of FMCG experience spanning 50+ markets across SEA, the Middle East, and Europe, Agarwal's belief in understanding and engaging with consumers resonates profoundly: "You cannot take loyalty for granted," he says. "Our purpose is to serve the underserved", and for that, he says the challenge is to constantly innovate, engage and establish brand relevance. An astute marketer, Agarwal also feels marketers don't talk enough about key actionable metrics like consumer acquisitions, consumer lifetime value, retention rates, consumer journeys, and engagement and conversion rates—all of which can generate insights to improve business performances.

Read below for Agarwal's strategic blueprint for the relentless pursuit of innovation in the diverse markets of the region, the challenges, and the opportunities for the consumer giant in 2024.

Nitin Agarwal, Chief marketing officer, Unilever International

1. What are the three biggest marketing challenges for your brand? 

You cannot take loyalty for granted. This challenges us to constantly innovate, engage with the consumer and establish that they are important for the brand and that we understand them.

Consumer behaviour is polarised between two ends of the spectrum—saving on few products and splurging on premium products. So, the traditional approach of focusing on winning in discount—mass or premium—to be the market leader will not be sustainable. Therefore, companies must have a range of brands catering to both ends of the spectrum. 

Consumers can be influenced by anything, anytime and anywhere. This requires brands to be present across channels with authentic, relevant content that engages the consumers on the right platform. 

2. What are the three biggest opportunities for your brand? 

At Unilever International, which is Unilever’s global business unit and white space partner, our purpose is to ‘serve the underserved’ across five key pillars—consumers, channels, brands, markets and formats. This includes tapping consumer segments in regions like Africa, the Pacific Islands, or diaspora communities worldwide with their homegrown brands. We also explore partnerships with NGOs, government institutions and the hospitality sector to drive new touchpoints. Our marketing team is focused on winning in these segments with a sharply defined digital strategy. 

We leverage our entrepreneurial mindset and agility, which lets us experiment and test the ground. This also enables a faster rollout of products in markets.   

Owing to business agility, we can serve cohorts in a specific region—catering to their preferences and allowing our brands to resonate more effectively with a diverse audience. This varies across categories, from serving textured hair needs in Australia to giving a superior scrub experience to users in India, among others. 

3. Which industry topic doesn't get talked about enough, and what topic should the industry be focussed on? 

One overlooked topic in the FMCG industry is that we lack marketing strategies for defined smaller cohorts (segmentation based on specific demographics, behaviours and interests within a broader market). This will help brands better serve consumers and tailor offerings to their needs, making it a win-win for all stakeholders.

A topic that we should be focused on is performance metrics. Businesses and marketers must talk about key actionable metrics like consumer acquisitions, consumer lifetime value, retention rates, consumer journeys, engagement rates and conversion rates, etc., which can generate insights to improve business performances.

4. What do you feel separates your brand culture from others?

Team that dines together stays together? Photo: Unilever International

The entrepreneurial mindset at Unilever International empowers and drives us to find ways to make things happen and with impact. Very few companies worldwide have grown five times in the last ten years (since inception) and crossed the E1B mark in business revenue. I am proud to be a part of this team!

5. Tell us the best professional advice you have ever received.

With the marketing team. Photo: Unilever International

You can't always choose the people you work with. You need to understand your team and their ways of working; often, it involves breaking the ice and having a heart-to-heart, honest conversation to figure out a rhythm and a pattern. I religiously follow this rule in my career, and it has worked every single time.

6. What kind of CMO are you?

I am consumer-centric, a risk-taker and a resilient CMO.

7. A campaign you wish you were a part of?

Nike’s edgy ‘Believe in Something’ campaign. It’s gritty and disruptive, everything that Nike stands for.

8. Name a brand with amazing customer experience and why it is great. 

I’d pick Singapore Airlines. It’s been a delight each time I have connected with their customer engagement team; I admire them as it requires guts to commit to superior customer experience and deliver it every time. 

9. What keeps you up at night as CMO? 

How can we keep ourselves (me and my team) relevant and future fit with the fast-paced consumer changes worldwide?

I relate a lot with what Charlie Munger said, “I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but are learning machines. They go to bed every night a little wiser than they were when they got up, and boy, does that help, particularly when you have a long run ahead of you.” This is what we need to instill in our teams! 

Campaign Asia

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