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Unilever: navigating between 'social relevance' and 'wokeness'


Unilever is being accused of surrendering to the woke mob but the reality is that marketing is not to blame for its faltering share price. Unilever has bowed to the woke mob and lost its marketing mojo, critics say, but others say marketing is carrying the can for corporate failings at the consumer goods giant. The question: is there audience fatigue around brand purpose?

The Marmite, Domestos and Magnum owner is accused of being overly political correct and purpose-driven in its marketing. Its hipster ice cream brand Ben & Jerry's is target number one, meddling in political affairs it has no reason to. Ben & Jerry's sparked furry by pledging to stop selling its ice cream in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem; and was also criticised for assailing home secretary Priti Patel over her handling of the migrant English Channel crisis. Meanwhile, other Unilever brands are less focused on price, but fixing the planet, critics say. Unilever's Lipton tea brand wants to "brighten the planet" while stock cube brand Knorr wants to reinvent "food for humanity".

Languishing share price
Unilever's purpose drive comes amid a languishing share price, which is down around three per cent on the year and being bettered by rival Procter & Gamble and Nestlé. Critics say Unilever is prioritising purpose over profit, but others say its more pressing problems lie elsewhere. Jonathan Trimble, CEO and co-founder, And Rising, the advertising agency, said: "Unilever has direction issues over share price growth: acquisitions and innovation are the more significant concerns. There is audience fatigue around brand purpose communications, yet there is enormous potential to engage audiences in action if you stop thinking about them as consumers."

Unilever lost the plot?
Unilever has long trumped its social values- it kicked off its sustainable business strategy in 2009 when former boss Paul Polman introduced its Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, later to be reinforced by its current leader Alan Jope- slashing carbon emissions across its brands and vowing to become "a beacon of diversity and inclusion". But now critics and a leading investor argue its drive to confirm to an ESG – environmental, social and governance –orthodoxy has gone too far. Top-ten Unilever shareholder Fundsmith has openly mocked Jope's attempt to inject purpose into its Hellmann's mayonnaise brand. In a letter to investors, Terry Smith, Fundsmith founder, wrote: "A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann's mayonnaise has in our view clearly lost the plot. The Hellmann's brand has existed since 1913 so we would guess that by now consumers have figured out its purpose (spoiler alert — salads and sandwiches)."

The criticism would have no doubt stung Unilever, given the onus it has put on sustainability and its insistence that its purpose-positioned brands are its best performers. Some have been quick to point out that Fundsmith, despite its criticism, has maintained its shareholding in Unilever with Smith saying "we think that its strong brands and distribution will triumph in the end." Andy Last, the CEO of specialist purpose agency MullenLowe Salt, which counts Unilever as a client, says: "It's an easy line to say Unilever's lost the plot because it feels the need to define the purpose of Hellman's Mayonnaise. But brands like Hellman's only stay strong by standing for something that elevates them above commodity products."

Purpose versus profit
While some consumers may feel fatigued with the welter of brand purpose communications from Unilever-and other companies- in recent years, experts say the purpose over profit debate is not clear-cut, with arguments on both sides. Some say the notion that purpose can only be achieved by comprising on profit is outdated while others say many people just want reasonably priced groceries.Will Arnold-Baker, founding partner, Come the Glorious Day, the advertising agency, said: " I think marketing and advertising exists to sell stuff. But that's not to say that brands can't be purposeful if the purpose is relevant, helps to differentiate them and makes them popular with consumers. I also don't think that Unilever waves the purpose wand with uniformity. Cornetto and Magnum are indulgent and they're left to forge their own paths. Domestos kills germs, and I doubt they're making it a hero of the green economy."

Some successful Unilever campaigns
As a FMCG powerhouse, Unilever has 400 brands in its stable, spanning ice creams, lotions, shampoos and condiments, and including many household favourites. And with over two and half billion people across nearly 200 countries using its brands every day, the likelihood is Unilever's marketing is not going to appeal to everyone. Furthermore, experts say Unilever can boast its fair share of marketing hits over the years, not to mention pioneering new ground in its commutations, which has been embraced by the industry. They point to Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty, first aired in 2004, which has transcended into a social movement and a clarion call to improve the self-esteem of women across the world. Likewise, Marmite's Love it or Hate It campaign has been heralded as a "genius" campaign, devised by a creative team that had a difference of opinion over whether the spread was gross or great.

Reaping the benefits of investment in brands
As Trimble points out: "Persil Dirt is Good, Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty, and Marmite's You Love It Or Hate It all broke new ground as part of the traditional mass marketing algorithm. "And they still reap the benefits of those long-term investments in brand equity today." However, Trimble notes that Unilever's "bold, entertaining and truthful" style of communications has been replaced "by introspection around the role its brands can play in broader society". More recent hits include a campaign for personal care brand Sure designed for people with disabilities and a campaign for soap brand Lifebuoy to encourage more children to adopt hand-washing habits for life.

Leading the way on stereotyping
Arguably, it was Unilever's Dove campaign which got the ball rolling on brands' ditching stereotypes, and Unilever has been a leading voice on axing unflattering stereotypes in ads. In 2016, it committed to unstereotyping in its advertising ahead of rules in the UK which now ban playing off gender stereotypes to sell stuff. One campaign touted as an early success story in its bid for diversity was Knorr Love at First Taste campaign, which Unilever says "shows" that food and cooking are please everyone can enjoy, regardless of gender". Lucy Rennie, strategy director at Distillery, the content strategy agency, said: "Unilever has to be applauded for the unstereotyping approach it has taken in its advertising and content. Its strong principles have empowered its brands to reduce stereotyping in advertising. A clear example being the evolution of Lynx ads. Love or hate them, they subvert cliches of beta males by showing them as intersectional winners."
But with such a vast array of disparate brands, ditching stereotypes is not easy. Arnold-Baker says: "Whether you're making content for social or a linear TV commercial, the constraints of time-length and attention span, mean that you have to draw little caricatures from time to time. So, some of Unilever's advertising will naturally have some stereotypes. Dove's campaign for real beauty attempts to address this head-on, but I dare say other brands in its portfolio don't."

What could Unilever do better?
Marketing and selling have changed massively over the past 50 years and Unilever, like its rivals, is striving to marry purpose, business strategy and long-term growth. Arnold-Baker says Unilever's marketing has "fallen prey" to the need to churn out content. He said: "Like a lot of brand owners, it seems to have fallen prey to a digital paradigm where you feel obliged to fill huge numbers of channels from social to mainstream with lots of different fragments of content. The quid pro quo here is that it becomes hard to achieve any kind of lasting idea that sticks in the consumer's mind." He adds that Unilever's campaigns that still resonate with him all hail from yesteryear, unlike today's fragmented forgettable activity. 
For Trimble, Unilever has the "right idea" but fails in its execution.He says: "Unilever has the right idea though it falls short in execution, as do all major consumer brands. "If you want to deliver a brand's purpose, invite your audience to do things that don't involve buying the product and invite participation in social action instead.''

Owning some of the world's most popular brands means that Unilever's marketing is always going to be in the spotlight. But experts says the root causes of its faltering share price- by comparison over the past year, shares in rival Procter and Gamble have jumped more than 15 per cent- lie away from marketing. They point to a muddled attempt to streamline its corporate structure and a failed tilt at acquiring GlaxoSmithKline's consumer unit, allied to disappointing growth figures, as where the finger should be pointed.

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