Unilever’s True Grit

On a sunny afternoon in early 2007, a passer-by in an outlying district of Cape Town would have chanced upon an unusual sight, especially for South Africa. Some 250 men and women of a variety of races and nationalities were hard at work with rakes, shovels and hand tools in a garbage-strewn lot. Had the passerby returned three days later, he’d have seen that lot transformed into a playground. He might have guessed that this was the work of a church group or perhaps some international children’s charity.

And he would be incorrect. The activity was, in fact, one of the most unusual marketing exercises to come along in years — and also one of the most ambitious. The work gang’s ultimate objective was to find a way to market a disparate grouping of detergent brands under the Unilever corporate umbrella — but more on that later. The short-term goal was far simpler: to get filthy.

“We all ended up getting dirty,” enthuses Rohit Jawa, a participant whose day job is overseeing Unilever’s laundry-care marketing in South and Southeast Asia. “It was absolutely fascinating and so liberating.” What good could possibly have been served in flying 250 executives to South Africa just to get mud into their socks? It was the only way that Unilever global brand vp for laundry care Aline Santos believed could truly get the company’s far-flung family to buy into an unusual idea, especially for the detergent category: Dirt is a good thing.

“When we explain why dirt can be good, it clicks in every market,” Santos says. “What is the right purpose in every market? To justify that dirt can be good.”

Since the dawn of laundry-detergent marketing (for Unilever — originally Lever Brothers — it began in 1919 with the introduction of Rinso soap powder), dirt has been Public Enemy No. 1, with most every jingle and tagline devoted to demonizing grime in all its forms.

At Unilever, that approach changed beginning with a meeting in 2006, in which Santos brought researchers, regional marketing heads and ad-agency executives together to decide how to take the company’s plethora of detergents (in reality, one formulation that sells under a different name in each country) and unite them under one marketing message.

The initiative had begun when London-based CEO Patrick Cescau demanded a remedy to the market share Unilever was losing to competitors, especially Procter & Gamble’s Tide. Part of the problem was that Unilever’s popular and highly effective detergent formula had followed an approach that was highly decentralized. The detergent known in North America as All was sold in France under the name Skip, as Persil in the rest of Europe, in India as Surf Excel, and as Omo in Brazil, China and Vietnam. Each brand operated independently, which had resulted in locally entrenched marketing infrastructures and, over time, 25 or more different positionings, packagings and communications strategies.

Switching to a single brand name was, of course, out of the question. (In Brazil alone, Omo enjoys enviable name recognition and a 50 percent market share.) But executives thought that unifying its marketing message would be effective-and one message stood out. Back in 2003, Unilever fabric care marketing director David Arkwright had come up with the concept that children develop life skills while playing (i.e., getting dirty). From this emerged the notion that dirt was a simple part of growing up-not bad, really, just natural. This concept eventually morphed into a working tagline, “Dirt Is Good.” In Brazil, the message had been tested and well received. Now it fell to Santos-and those she’d summoned to her strategy meeting — to apply that message to Latin America, Europe and much of Asia too.

That sounds relatively straightforward, given an organization of Unilever’s scale. After all, the maker of Lipton iced teas and Caress soaps in the U.S. flexed its marketing muscle before on global brands like Axe and Dove.

“Dirt Is Good,” however, was different. Not only would the notion of positive filth be a tough sell in places like Asia (where cleanliness is a kind of moral imperative), but there were also huge internal hurdles to overcome. Santos knew it better than anyone. As a 20-year Unilever veteran, she sensed that the regional vps she assembled would be incapable of giving up individual autonomy in favor of a centralized marketing strategy.

“When I started, I thought we had a vision,” Santos recalls. “But as we worked toward that vision, what I found we had instead was something I call ‘passive alignment.’ People were just saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes,'”

At one point, after weeks of fruitless meetings, Santos threw down the gauntlet. “Either you are with us in this boat-or out!” she said. It had become clear to Santos that drastic measures were needed to effect the kind of cultural change she had in mind. In the end, though, the solution wasn’t a boat; it was an airplane — one bound for South Africa.

Santos dubbed her group the “DIG team” (short for Dirt Is Good), and once in Cape Town she presented an early form of her strategy to a larger audience of Unilever executives before everyone headed off to the playground site. As it turned out, grime under the fingernails can do a lot in terms of teaching branding strategy. One participant remarked, “If we can do this, we can do everything.”

Well, almost. Tapped to help with the project, consultancy EffectiveBrands developed a strategy to help each individual brand align its efforts with the larger initiative. EffectiveBrands constructed a three-part communications diagram that mapped out where exactly certain brands were with respect to the rest. But more importantly, it helped the individual brands see “Dirt Is Good” wasn’t really a cleaning message; it was a social one. “Dirt Is Good” was meant to tap into a common goal in every culture — that a mother wants to see her child succeed, according to EffectiveBrands’ founder Marc de Swaan Arons.

That notion was in turn harnessed by lead ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, which understood that finding a thematic thread that would resonate in a distinct array of cultures was essential to developing a shared marketing message. As Nick Kendall, who oversees planning at BBH, explains, mothers everywhere — regardless of culture, class or religion — want their kids to succeed, and a necessary part of child development is playing. From this emerged a workable tagline: “Every Child Has the Right to Play.”

The concept, Kendall explains, “forces you to think about, How does dirt help a child develop? What does it help a child achieve? We focused on the best metaphor possible. When you are to experience and learn something, nowhere [is there a better example] than in children.”

The first piece of marketing to emerge from the “Dirt Is Good” thinking was “Roboboy.” In the one-minute spot, a robot confined to a closet makes his way outdoors. As he touches the grass and leaves, his feet become human flesh, and then his hands. After stomping around in a mud puddle, the robot completes its transformation into a real boy. Locally adapted for broadcast in Vietnam, Pakistan, Latin America and, later, throughout Europe, the spot ends with the full motto: “Every child has the right to be a child.” The spot generated immediate and measurable results. In Brazil, Unilever detergent upped its market share by six points; nine in Pakistan.

Roboboy opened the door for other spots built on “Dirt Is Good” — a marketing ethos that soon proved to be both durable and expandable. In Argentina, for example, where Unilever’s detergent is sold as Ala, one spot featured a mother scolding her young son Dario for getting his sports jacket dirty-until she learns that Dario muddied his clothes by helping a girl climb over a wall so she could join her playmates. “So,” says the proud and bemused mother, “you have learned how to be a real gentleman.”

In a similar theme of chivalry, another spot for Surf Excel (Unilever’s detergent brand name in India) shows a schoolboy beating up a mud puddle for having the nerve to soil his little sister’s dress. “If getting dirty teaches you to do something nice, then dirt is good, isn’t it?” the ad asks.

“As marketers, we love to think that each brand is different, or ‘my brand is special,'” Santos says. “But there is no market today that can’t implement ‘Dirt Is Good’ on a cornerstone brand.”

Including the U.S. as part of its “America Needs Dirt” campaign to get consumers to embrace the outdoors (and, by association, dirt), Unilever ran a promotion in 2004 featuring retired Major League Baseball shortstop Cal Ripkin in which the community that collected the most points from Wisk sales would receive a complete makeover for its local baseball field. Wisk was chosen over All because the brand’s history of stain cleaning aligned most closely with the “Dirt Is Good” proposition. All was much more of an “all family brand,” explains Bill Littlefield, who ran Unilever’s North American laundry business before it was sold to private equity firm Vestar Capital Partners last fall.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the “Dirt Is Good” theme is that, as a marketing approach, it’s not entirely new. Workhorse automotive brands have driven their pickups and 4WD vehicles through mud for years as a badge of legitimacy. The Discovery network TV show Dirty Jobs helped to pioneer a whole demographic of Americans who respect those who get filthy as a routine part of keeping the world running. And, back in 1999, P&G revived a search for the “Dirtiest Kid in America” to promote Tide — and got 1,300 submissions. Though P&G’s fabric-care external relations manager Kash Shaikh maintains the promo “wasn’t about celebrating dirt,” 11 finalists dubbed “Tide’s Dirty Dozen” were routed through a grimy obstacle course in New York’s Grand Central Terminal and the messiest was chosen as winner. So, you decide.

Beyond dispute, “Dirt Is Good” has been a down-and-dirty winner for Unilever. Since its rollout, sales of the detergent brands included under the motto (all bear a “splat” symbol on the packaging) have grown from roughly $473 million to about $3.7 billion.

“Dirt Is Good” has even managed to trigger actual social change. Academic laws in Vietnam now allow for school recess. In Brazil, schools now compete for an annual “kids can play” seal that recognizes the winning institution for an enlightened approach to child development. “You can’t imagine how schools fight for it,” Santos says.

And, in the process, get dirty.