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Unilever and the Integrity of Brand Storytelling

November 25, 2013 Comments

Unilever project sunlightWith the launch of Project Sunlight, Unilever has taken another leap forward towards what is increasingly recognized as the future of effective social marketing. Central to such leadership is the recognition that a brand needs to lead with its social purpose to ensure the brand is meaningful and relevant to customers lives. But more than that, what Unilever has done better than any other brand right now is to demonstrate the integrity of their storytelling through both the parent company and its product brands.

This was powerfully demonstrated with the launch of Project Sunlight this week. For years, sub-brands that used to benefit from the relative protection of the corporate veil didn’t feel compelled to define what the company stood for. But under the leadership of Paul Polman, Unilever has put its shoulder squarely behind its core positioning of sustainable living, which overarches all the messaging related to its product brands.

Project Sunlight takes this one step further by integrating the company and product brands into a single purposeful movement. Framed around the company’s core mission, “To build a brighter future,” Project Sunlight enlists the various sustainability, cause marketing, and foundation efforts of its many product brands in the service of generating acts of sunlight that collectively serve to fulfill its mission. In doing so, Unilever recognizes that well informed and media savvy consumers are now looking behind the product brand to the parent company, and have a far higher expectation of accountability and transparency across all the company’s brands.

This is not without parallel’s, for brands today sit at the intersection of compounding social crises such as obesity, GMO’s and lack of access to clean water, fast changing social technologies and rising customer activism. In response, the smartest marketers are seeking to mitigate risk and build their reputations by putting their shoulder behind their social impact work, engaging in conversations, and operating with greater transparency in order to inspire greater customer goodwill, loyalty, and ultimately sales.

The benefits of such an approach are many and include: protection of the company’s social license to operate, mitigating the risk of damaging consumer activism, reputation enhancement by earning consumer goodwill based on the good work the company does, marketing spend optimization due to an alignment between company and product brands, and employee and consumer loyalty.

Viewed in this light, the rationale behind Unilever’s decisions appear almost self-evident because there is so much upside and efficiency’s to be found through such an approach. But anyone with an understanding of the complexity of operating a multi-national corporation that includes dozens of household name brands will recognize that such a singular and seamless commitment is no small effort. In doing so, Unilever has not only positioned themselves for continued leadership across multiple categories and within the marketing world, but they have set a powerful example to other brands that will help motivate the private sector to play an ever-increasing role in scaling social change.

What Unilever has recognized, however, is that there is an enormous first-mover advantage to be enjoyed. By taking a risk to establish a company-wide point of view, they also get to choose exactly which key emotional property or promise to the world they want to lead with. As more and more brands rise to this challenge, the window of opportunity for their competitors will shrink. That does not mean Unilever is off the hook- good intentions must now be backed by real actions that yield tangible results around the globe, and the methodology and metrics by which to measure the social impact of a brand are perhaps as complicated as committing to such an effort itself.

Yet, by taking such a bold position, Unilever has demonstrated those new found qualities that define leadership in a fast-changing social business market place. Commitment to social purpose, a healthy appetite for risk, and a recognition that only through authenticity, transparency, and accountability can a brand transcend a product category, industry, or even market, and become a mainstay of popular culture their customers want to see succeed.

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  • Keep it Real

    Simon – I fear you are falling into the trap of congratulating inappropriately. 
While this
    Unilever Sunlight initiative isn’t exactly “greenwashing” its
 deflective and
    I’d remind you of the definition of integrity: the quality of 
being honest and
    having strong moral principles. 

In relation to Unilever’s 
sustainability
    efforts they are very much about minimal compliance and we are 
remiss if we
    don’t hold the likes of Polman’s to rigorous examination. Unilever’s
 definition
    of sustainable sourcing (say in the agricultural context) is suspect
 and in no
    way goes far enough in mitigating on-going biodiversity damage and/or
compensates
    for all the years of previous biodiversity destruction and
 natural-capital
    free-riding. Have you for example indexed Unilever’s 
CSR/Corporate Social
    Investments (CSI) to its profits? Its ridiculous yet the 
media (plus
    consultants, advisors, ad agencies, etc looking to secure a piece
of the
    Unilever marketing budget) seem to extoll instead of telling-it-like-it-is.
 All
    Unilever’s talk needs to be put through the “Trust but Verify”
screen.
    For example – its talk about including small holder farmers in its 
supply
    chain. Well in reality the current economic times throw up cost 
challenges that
    result in margin compression. In this scenario there isn’t a
 hope that Unilever
    will actualize its talk of sourcing from small farmers at 
scale because that
    means throwing out an efficiently honed Global sourcing 
model that is anchored
    in ever decreasing costs, reliable quality and
continuity of supply vs. sourcing
    from millions of geographically dispersed 
small farmers increases complexity
    and bumps up required management resources.
It claims to source from 750,000
    small farmers (recently stated at 1,5 million
by Paul Polman) but what is this
    really in the context of the World’s 2,5bn
 small farmers. Commentators (like
    Simon) should be asking why is Unilever 
not truly walking its talk? New
    Unilever/Polman supported initiatives like the 
business-as-unusual
    “B” Team that seeks new models are also 
deflective. No laboratory is
    needed to test or incubate new models – Unilever
can do this in a real-business
    heartbeat yet it doesn’t. Its present model is simply 
an ATM spewing profits and
    there is a distinct lack of commitment (and integrity) 
around reducing those
    profits to embark on new truly inclusive models that puts 
purpose on par with
    profits. To be clear while the likes of Unilever believe they are sustainability ground-breakers but its really not going far enough. Why well as mentioned tampering with the existing model adds costs but also the creative intellectual capital needed to architect truly innovative, authentic and socially just sustainability transformation is not going to be found in multi-nationals or the multi-natiional back-slapping sycophantic “yes” men advisors. While this persists the likes of Unilever are not going to be held to the fire.

  • Simon Mainwaring

    Thanks so much for the detailed thoughts and yes, it is critical to keep it real. There is no doubt that the standards by which we hold ourselves and others accountable must be raised. That said, I take heart from what is a growing and unlikely trend in business leadership. The more brands such as Unilever lead with social impact commitments, the more they will be held accountable for them and the more they must evolve their business practices to deliver on them. We are by no means there yet but this is a conversation that has to mature and become more sophisticated as the methodologies and metrics by which we measure sustainability and cause marketing efforts evolve. I agree there will be much back slapping on the way, but I prefer to see those slaps as nudges in the right direction as opposed to hands held high saying profit is the only consideration. Perhaps the best guide is to look at what considerations we’re driving the dialogue around best business and marketing practices 5 and 10 years ago and see what is gaining traction now (for example, shared value). Rest assured there are experts in every facet of business stepping up and providing ever greater scrutiny to big brands claims and behaviors. Ultimately, like you, i hope the proportion of fund dedicated to profits and purpose will be more evenly distributed and I suspect that will increase as social crises compound. But business will always be profit driven, but with sufficient acknowledgement of efforts in the right direction, and equally forceful accountability, I do believe business can evolve to become a more powerful engine of social change. Thanks for the sober reflections and we always need more of that. Simon

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About Simon Mainwaring

We First training and consulting helps the world’s most innovative brands tell the story of the good work they do in ways that build their reputation, employee productivity, sales and social impact.

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