For Unilever’s CMO, Global Growth and Social Responsibility Are Now Inseparable Goals

CPG empire has learned doing good is good business

Keith Weed seems a little shell-shocked.

Just a few days earlier, he was in shirtsleeves and in the embrace of a 90-degree day in Singapore. But this March morning, he finds himself hit full in the face with the frigid, slushy mess of New York. "It's terribly cold out there, and I'm so glad to get to this nice, warm office," he says with a sigh.

Yet another giant snowstorm is due as he's scheduled to jet off to Europe. Another sigh.

As chief marketing and communications officer of Unilever, the world's second-largest packaged-goods marketer, Weed has the whole world as his office. His company, based in London and Rotterdam, Holland, encompasses some of the best-loved products in the world—among them, Dove, Axe and Vaseline health and beauty products; Lipton tea; Hellmann's mayonnaise; plus a thousand other brands used by 2 billion people on any given day. Last year, Unilever spent $7.6 billion on brand and marketing initiatives. Now, Weed wants the world to know the Unilever name as well as those of its goods.

A major step was the first TV ad for the corporate brand. The spot, called "Bright Future Speeches," puts Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi side by side with young people giving impassioned speeches about fighting child hunger. The ad—a promotion for Unilever's Project Sunlight, an online hub of social programs benefiting children that works in concert with the charity Feeding America—closes with the Unilever "U" and the logos of Lipton, Knorr, Hellmann's, Suave and Dove. Launched last October by Ogilvy & Mather and sister shop David, the ad offers an emotional "explanation of what our U logo means," Weed explains. The campaign, which encompasses television, print and in-store elements, ran through the end of last year in the U.S., the U.K., Brazil, India and Indonesia and still has a presence online.

The campaign is not without its critics, who point to the difficulty of corporate-versus-product branding. "This approach can help Unilever stand out by creating a strong association with a highly worthy cause," says Claudia Fisher, co-founder and partner of the brand consultancy Rivia. And yet she finds the brands singled out in the ad "puzzling," explaining, "Corporate branding needs to transcend categories, but here is a selection of product brands that is neither a representation of their core portfolio segments nor is it a selection of brands with the best natural fit with the cause." A Unilever rep responds: "These brands are linked to our Unilever social mission overall, and they are our biggest brands in the U.S. that provide scale to make change possible."

Getting Bigger and Greener

In totality, Unilever has steadily grown as a global force, even as its larger rival, Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble, has stalled. P&G is in the process of divesting or combining some 100 brands, including Duracell, in a mission to restore profitability. Despite a slowdown in the Chinese market, Unilever's sales worldwide grew 2.9 percent in 2014, buoyed by a 5.7 percent spike in emerging markets. (Sales in developed countries fell around 1 percent.) Some 60 percent of global sales now come from emerging markets; the goal is 70 percent by 2020.

Expanding the company's global footprint is only the beginning of Weed's mission, however. The CPG giant, guided by CEO Paul Polman, has set forth not only to double the size of its business but also to reduce its environmental impact. It is putting its U logo on all its products and marketing pieces as a "trust mark of sustainability," says Weed, "a way of telling consumers that any product with the U is the right choice for the planet."

A 32-year veteran of the company, Weed crafted the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan in 2010 as a way to decouple the company's growth from its environmental footprint. Not only does it cover all Unilever brands in all markets, but it also addresses the sourcing of raw materials and the way consumers use products—everything from putting an end to deforestation by Lipton tea farmers to reducing the amount of hot water a family uses to do the laundry with Surf detergent. (Weed says Unilever now sources half of its agricultural raw materials from sustainable farms.) Along the way, the Sustainable Living Plan grew to include "improving health and well-being" and "enhancing livelihoods"—hence the anti-hunger campaign. 

Dove | Unilever says products that incorporate social purpose in their messaging deliver better sales results. Dove's Self-Esteem Project has to date reached more than 14 million girls worldwide, providing parents, teachers and mentors with tools to hold up to the next generation of women.

Along with the parent company, each of Unilever's product divisions is charged with adding social purpose to its brand positioning. Even Axe, perhaps best known for the sexed-up, adolescent fantasies of its marketing campaigns, adopted the theme of world peace for its Super Bowl ad this year from Bartle Bogle Hegarty, which had wartime imagery shifting into romantic gestures. Apparently, the strategy is paying off. "Our brands that most engage with our sustainability and social purpose plan are growing faster," Weed reports. Indeed, in the last three years, Unilever saw a 10 percent annual increase in sales among those brands.

Marketing 'Lost its Way'

The marriage of marketing and social purpose is not always seamless, of course. "We realized early that we could not have tension between our marketing people and sustainability people if we were going to find ways to serve more people without increasing our impact on the earth," Weed says. With Polman's blessing, in 2011 Weed combined Unilever's marketing, social responsibility and communications teams into one department where social good forms the backbone of marketing efforts. Before that, Weed says, "marketing people felt they were being held back by our sustainability challenge and that it took their eyes off the ball of growing their brands. On the other hand, the sustainability people thought marketing was part of the problem and would never take them seriously."

Weed, who was trained as an engineer, believes a big part of that conflict was that "marketing had lost its way since the 1980s. Advertising and marketing used to be a noble calling, but then they became just about selling stuff for the sake of selling. It was all about consumerism." But he sees social purpose and sustainability as the same as marketing rather than having separate missions.

Unsurprisingly, Weed seeks to be green at home while he changes the world on the job, installing solar panels, growing his own vegetables and recycling water for his garden. "So far, the thing I can't solve are the [fuel-guzzling] flights I have to take," he notes. 

Ben & Jerry's: Seventy-seven percent of varieties have

achieved Fairtrade certification.

Emerging Market Factor

Experts believe Unilever has tapped into the right message as the globe tilts to the East and South. The GDP of emerging markets will overtake that of developed economies by 2020, with the middle class adding more than 1 billion consumers worldwide, per McKinsey. And those consumers will gravitate to brands with a social purpose. Nearly three-quarters of online consumers in the Asia-Pacific region, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa are willing to pay more for products "from companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact," says Nielsen. In North America and Europe, that number is just 40 percent.

Research from consultancy APCO Worldwide bears that out. Consumers in emerging markets pay greater attention to how corporations behave in the workplace, in the community and in regard to the environment than those in the developed world, says CEO Brad Staples. "This makes corporate brand and reputation communications even more important in burgeoning markets."

For example, when Unilever connected purpose-embedded products with the Unilever parent brand in Brazil, "affinity scores and brand awareness increased dramatically," says KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz, CEO of the association Sustainable Brands.

Another trend affecting global marketing is a consumer base that is increasingly mobile and urban, Weed points out. "Marketers have the massive opportunity to use mobile to talk to people as individuals with access to real-time data," he says. That is even more pronounced in developing countries, eMarketer found, where a growing young, connected middle class is beginning to recognize and prefer name brands.

To illustrate the possibilities, Weed points to an innovative campaign in Bihar, one of the largest states in India, where TV and print reach only 20 percent of the population but where many more consumers own a mobile phone.

The impact of mobile no doubt will challenge Unilever's media agencies, which are currently undergoing a mandatory review, with a decision expected after September. Held every three years, the review encompasses an annual media budget of more than $5 billion, most of which is handled by WPP Group's Mindshare, Interpublic Group's Initiative and Omnicom Group's PHD.

Could the rise of mobile mean global efficiencies for Unilever, maybe less investment in media? Not likely, says Weed. "I'm a great believer in building the brand, so my goal is always to reach more people. Instead of trying to reach the same number of people with less money, I look at reaching more people with the same money." (About one-fifth of the company's total media spend goes to digital. Industry sources expect Unilever going forward to devote a greater share to digital, as have other marketers.) 

Lifebuoy | Once you put it on your hands, this handwash goes from white to green in 10 seconds (the time it takes to protect against almost all germs), thus encouraging kids to wait for the change in color when cleaning up. The product has sold exceptionally well in India, Indonesia and parts of Africa.

What's at Risk

Unilever's melding of marketing, social purpose and sustainability into a single department and under the parent brand is not without its pitfalls. "A missed social purpose goal can be used against the company by critics," warns Skrzyniarz. Transparency helps, she says. "Consumers today are not looking for perfection, but they want an authentic commitment to betterness with honesty about wins and failures along the way."

Focusing on the overall corporation means problems for one brand could spread to another, adds Fisher—making close monitoring of messages and crisis management essential.

Another risk is that brands can overreach, as shown by Starbucks' recent effort to encourage—via its coffee cups—conversations about race. The social media backlash that followed indicated that many consumers thought the idea trivialized a serious issue.

When it comes to sustainability, even the very definition can be dicey. Unilever contends that sustainability does not include limiting ingredients from genetically modified organisms, while its own Ben & Jerry's brand disagrees, supporting a 2014 Vermont law requiring the labeling of food made with GMO ingredients. Unilever belongs to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which sued Vermont officials to block the law.

Yet another issue: What happens as sustainability becomes a more familiar marketing message and consumers are inundated by these corporate initiatives? Conglomerates including P&G, Nestlé and Johnson & Johnson all proudly tout their sustainability credentials and products with social purpose at their core. "Today, all great brands advocate for their stakeholders' interests, and these brands are driving the reputations of their parent companies," notes Staples. "Such advocacy has become the most important and final step for any corporate brand to achieve high status among its stakeholders."

But as Skrzyniarz points out, Unilever is not new to the sustainability message, having been committed for more than a decade to tying its brands to a more meaningful purpose. "The world is moving in their direction, but they can maintain the benefit of first mover by developing new expertise," she says.

That puts all the more pressure on Weed and on Unilever's agency partners. Unilever understands what it's up against, the company veteran says: "It used to be that big eats small. But now it's a world where fast eats slow. What's important is that we get to the future first."