Between the lines of the Unilever brand story

At last week’s Marketing Society Conference – a day of Global Leadership discussions – we were treated to a very well put together and powerfully delivered talk from Keith Weed, CMO at Unilever. The headlines, reported succintly in today’s Marketing magazine (7 Dec), focus on how they are embedding sustainability in the business, not having separate CSR, and how they need foresight not just insight, the importance in partnerships to solve the big issues, the value of having a purpose in engaging employees, and social media being a driver of having to make the corporate brand mean something… all interesting points.

But between the lines of what Keith says, lay some truths that lay unsaid. That the reason Unilever is so successful, is not because of what issues they choose to tackle (much as I love what they are doing with the place) but because of the foundations they already have in place to build from. They are a marketing driven organisation through and through – a rare breed. And as most recruiters will tell you (I know a few) that’s what makes ex-Unilever (and generally ex-FMCG marketers), in high demand in all other sectors.

Being a marketing-driven organisation is about thinking a certain way – and the things Unilever does that it doesn’t bother to shout about, are the very things many clients struggle with day to day. And these things are the reason strategic marketing consultants like myself and all my associates, can earn a living helping clients solve their problems….

So here’s my top 5 things that Keith didn’t say, but could’ve done, about how Unilever remains a marketing-driven organisation…

1. Brand and business strategy go hand in hand – we create a big mission for ourselves, for Unilever (crafting brands for life) and that’s the mission of the whole organisation. There’s no ‘them’ and ‘us’.

2. The organisation respects marketing, and vice versa. We’re not the ‘cut and paste’ department, or the ‘communication’ team. We run each brand like a mini business, bringing together R&D, finance, production, sales and marketing.

3. We put consumer understanding at the heart of what we do. We can think about ‘foresight’ because we already have great insight. We know our consumers, about what they do with our products, how they choose them, what role they play, what problems they solve. And we are realistic about the limitations of that – we know our consumers as real people for whom our brands only play a tiny part, a tiny percent of the time.

4. We look outwards not just inwards. Not just partnerships, but a genuine understanding of what’s going on in the world, and how we should respond to, or lead, those changes – whether hand washing campaigns in India to reduce sickness, or the emerging opportunities of social media and TV product placement in the UK. We therefore value external opinion – we enter awards, we enter ‘green’ indices, we try to compare ourselves against the best organisations in any sector, not just our category competitors.

5. We lead from the top, and have buy in from the top down for all that we do – brand strategies and sustainability strategy included. But we also try to balance global with local – to know consumers means to know them in their cultural local context not just as one big ‘global pool’. Therefore you have to manage the business with the opportunity to adapt, to pursue local opportunities, whilst balancing effective spend allocation across all these opportunities.

In my view, these are pivotal things an organisation needs to truly be marketing driven. And I continue to be amazed at how many businesses don’t grasp or don’t believe these basics – or don’t believe that it would be of benefit to them to do it. For the latter folks, I suggest Brand Learning’s latest book ‘The Growth Drivers’ (launched last week, a great read)…

So thank you Keith, and I make no apologies for reading between your lines…!