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.

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