Cannes 2016: How Unilever succeeded with social good

The firm's CMO shows sustainability is driving growth for a CPG giant

Russ Martin June 23, 2016

PRESENTED_BY_AOLOf the dozens of brands in Unilever‘s portfolio, all of the top performers now carry a message of social good.

Speaking at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity on Wednesday, Unilever CMO Keith Weed said the CPG giant’s top five brands all hail from its “sustainable living” portfolio, which was created with the aim of decreasing the company’s environmental footprint and boosting its social impact.

In recent years, Weed said the practice of pumping marketing dollars into social causes has become more than just a way to shore up the image of Unilever brands. It’s also having a major impact on the company’s bottom line. The sustainable living brands portfolio grew faster in 2015 than it did the previous year, and 30% faster than the rest of Unilever’s portfolio. In fact, the group of brands now accounts for nearly half of the company’s growth.

“These are brands with purpose, brands that matter, brands with real meaning,” Weed said. “People are engaging with them and engaging with them at scale.”

Weed calls the strategy of baking social good into a brand’s DNA “campaigning brands.” Corporate social responsibility has long been a part of the PR playbook, but Weed said he believes having an impact on society is now a crucial part of building a successful brand.

“It’s easy to say we should do ‘campaigning brands’ because it’s the right thing to do. I think we should do ‘campaigning brands’ because it makes economic sense,” Weed said.

One of the Unilever brands best known for social responsibility is Ben & Jerry’s, a label that’s been linked to everything from gay marriage to climate change. The brand has taken part in Climate Marches all over the world, encouraging its customers to both join in on the protests and to sign the corresponding petitions. The brand has also galvanized its own employee base around the cause and, according to Weed, Unilever had the largest corporate presence during the global edition of the march last winter in terms of feet on the ground. As for business results, the associate campaign garnered 350 million media impressions and led to an 11-point brand lift in the category of social responsibility.

At the corporate level, Unilever’s has likewise attached itself to environmental issues. Last summer, it produced an ad touting its commitment to making products sustainably without harming forests, “Farewell To The Forest,” that told the story of a tree that left the forest to live in the city for fear it would be cut down.

There’s a business case to be made for this kind of messaging. According to a stat cited by Weed, 54% of consumers would buy a product if it was socially and environmentally sustainable. Of course, he said, quality and price-point also matter. If socially conscious products are expensive or of inferior quality, consumers will reject them.

Outside of the environment, Unilever’s Persil brand shot a film with prison inmates talking about how important time spent outside in the prison yard is to their well-being. The ad eventually reveals that inmates spend two hours a day outdoors, but on average children spend just one. Linking the concept back to the detergent brand, the ad sent a message to parents: let your kids play outside, learn about the world and get dirty. Persil will deal with the cleanup.

Unilever and Weed are thinking more broadly about what it means to act responsibly than simply attaching brands to specific causes. Recently, for example, the company undertook a major research project investigating the way women are portrayed in both its own advertisements and those by other brands. The company found that 50% of ads at large portray women in a stereotypical way. Just 1% of women in the advertisements considered were seen as funny, only 3% showed women as leaders and a paltry 2% of the ads portrayed women as being intelligent.

Looking at its own marketing, Unilever considered 165 ads from multiple brands and split them into two categories – ads using normative messaging and using progressive messaging. The overall commercial impact of the progressive ads, Weed said, was 12% higher than the normative ads.

Unilever has now sent a message to its brand managers and agencies: Unilever is moving towards progressive advertising.

“We don’t want women to have a secondary use to product images,” Weed said. Instead, the company is striving to craft female characters in its ads who are fully realized, authentic and three-dimensional.

“We can create better advertising,” he said. “If we create advertising that is more progressive and challenges stereotypes.”


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