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How Unilever brings purpose into the gaming world and metaverse


From gaming competitions to a virtual island in the metaverse. Unilever is targeting younger audiences by relocating part of its 2021 spending into streaming services and video games such as Animal Crossing. In the virtual world purpose remains a key principle. 'This is not about what brands say, but what they actually do.'

Imagine, a game player donates a virtual food item and each time it happens, a real food company donates to a charity organisation in the real world. In this way Unilever's Hellmann's condiment brand tied up with the video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons, connecting the real and virtual realms. „It really stood out because it was pure when talking about purpose," says David Porter, Vice President Global Media at Unilever.

Hellmann's launched its very own island in collaboration with Animal Crossing. Players could explore the island and convert their virtual food waste into nutritious meals for people in need during Christmas. „Players came into the possession of agricultural products, in this case turnips. We asked them to bring their turnips to Hellmann's island before they rotted. In return to what they gave us in the virtual world we fed a needy person in the real world," recounts Porter during a presentation 'Gaming & Marketing Matters'. „So, here we were living our purpose, living with the brand's strategy and doing some real good inside the game in a very integrated seamless way."

Telling great brand stories
Unilever is relocating part of its advertising budget as the pandemic has accelerated a shift in the way consumers shop and entertain themselves. Marketing in gaming will be an increasing part of it. Digital marketing according to Reuters now accounts for approximately 45% of its total media budget versus about 40% prior to the pandemic. In Britain, the company's deodorant brand Axe sponsors some top gamers. In China, which contributes about 6% to overall sales, Unilever backs e-sport celebrities and leagues, which are gaining popularity among the younger generation in Asia.

Gaming offers new opportunities for brands to engage with people. „Everyone can play, everyone can connect. It just gives us a different space that is going to be really useful to help us tell great brand stories. (…) This conversation is going all the way from how we build better assets to should we even be building our own games and have branded games."

Branded collectibles
A special case is Unilever's anti-dandruff shampoo brand Clear that collaborated in China. „We took it into e-sports and worked with Honor of Kings, which at the time was the number one mobile e-sports game. We did live streaming with our influencers, we had our e-commerce assets driving people to and others. In the middle of that we had what we called dragon sets, which were branded collectible items, totally in line with the game and with the Clear brand. We had a massive sales spike. It is all about high performance and we successfully transferred that into the gaming world."

Porter recalls his first home visits in China in the early 2000s. „Under the one-child policy you had these children with emerging middleclass parents. All the ones I went to see had PC's in the kids' room. They were living and socializing online. It transformed the Chinese youth into an incredible digital native population that we had not seen anywhere else on the planet. And now it is happening all over the planet with gaming at its core. So, how we communicate with these people as they grow up will change. That is one of the things that has changed how we use media and communications."

What is also changing is how young people view the world. They want a sustainable society and are interested in companies that are sharing such views. Conny Braams is Chief Digital and Marketing Officer at Unilever and she stresses the importance of purpose. „Our future-fit brands always have a clearly defined purpose and we need to communicate that purpose in a creative and entertaining way," Braams says in a video interview with The Economic Times. „What people want to be part of is going to be critical for the brands moving forward."

Purposeful brands grow faster
For Unilever CEO Alan Jope a brand's purpose always plays a central role that should be expressed in both the physical and digital world. „Our brands compete on a platform that is purposeful, whether it is an environmental proposition or a social benefit. Those brands are growing roughly twice the rate of the rest of the portfolio," Jope says in a video interview with Clifford Chance/Principia. „Our portfolio is now about 60% of what we would call purpose led brands and 40% not, and the 60% is growing twice the rate of the 40%."

With conscious consumption on the rise, consumers increasingly want to buy sustainable brands. Engaging with customers is therefore more and more about purpose. „We believe that people with purpose thrive, companies with purpose last and brands with purpose grow. Our most purposeful brands are showing real commercial success," Porter says. „So, we know purpose pays and there are challenges in the current media world with communicating that really well. I believe gaming is one of the ways to do that."

Look for a brand safe environment
For marketers starting out into the gaming world and metaverse there are a few tips. The first is to look for a brand safe environment. „It is especially important when dealing with a young and volatile audience." Avoid intrusive experiences. „I worry every day that somebody is going to bring into gaming the equivalent of internet pop-ups, we really have to avoid that." Stay on purpose. „Try to be as authentic as you can and try to connect back into the real world for that."

There are no written guides, so learn by practice. „No one learned to swim from a book. The same thing is true in this space. If brands are going to wait for a playbook with the gaming industry neatly arranged about how you work through it, it will take a long time before it is going to work."

Delivering ice cream to gamers in Spain
An interesting example is how Unilever's Magnum brand succeeded in reaching gamers in Spain. The Magnum brand manager in Spain, Almudena Moreno, had been scouting for a partner. „We started looking for opportunities in the top e-sports league in Spain," Moreno explains. „The LVP SuperLiga League of Legends attracted five million unique viewers during a tournament." The Magnum brand team worked with influencers to create the opportunity to have ice cream delivered as gamers watched the competition.

In collaboration with SuperLiga and Twitch the team crafted the campaign around a key moment in the game: the destruction of the first tower. When a gamer destroyed the tower, an image promoting Magnum Pints appeared alongside a link where gamers could order a pint of ice cream for a home delivery within ten minutes. Spanish gaming content creators amplified the campaign on their Twitch and Instagram accounts. The team has now reached millions of gamers globally as a result of similar campaigns in countries such as Sweden, Turkey, Russia and China.

Gaming masterclasses for marketers
Marketing teams need to gain insights and expertise on gaming and the metaverse. Unilever holds gaming masterclasses for members of its marketing team, inviting professional game players and industry experts. In the context of gaming and other digital experiences the brand's purpose remains at the center stage, as Braams explains. „We are upscaling our marketeers, sometimes taking away the complexity we have built into marketing and come back to the basics of it. Let people be able to flourish in this digital environment where we are actually not doing digital, but being digital." Unilever's CEO Alan Jope is convinced that also in the new arenas purposeful brands have the future. But there is something else. „We have a 'secret' formula. And that is not very secret, because we talk about it all the time, but very few people have copied it which is: what brands do is more important than what brands say."

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