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.