All markets matter, says Unilever's Polman

16 June 2009

LONDON: Global brands need to focus on "winning in categories" rather than looking to specific markets to drive growth, but should also endeavour to integrate "local" elements into their multinational marketing campaigns as part of this process, according to Unilever's chief executive, Paul Polman.

Polman, who enjoyed spells at Procter & Gamble and Nestlé before returning to Unilever as ceo last year, said brand owners "have to be careful" not to ignore "more difficult" countries like the UK and Germany, which are seeing consumer spending slow.

While "sexy" and "dynamic" markets like China could offer "a quicker reward" in the short term, an exclusive emphasis on these areas "wouldn't necessarily be in the interest of the business" over a much longer period.

Rather than "winning in developing markets", he said, it is more important for companies like Unilever to adopt a "winning attitude wherever you are."

However, Polman also asserted that a nuanced approach is required to achieve this goal, as "you have to win in the local market. It doesn't serve anything to have a standard product globally and not win anywhere."

This lesson is based his own prior experience, as "I made that mistake when I was running global laundry at P&G. I made that mistake in some businesses at Nestlé. And I'm sure I will make it again here and learn from it."

Unilever's ceo cited the success of P&G's strategy in the personal care sector as a good model, and argued that a global focus has also proved successful for Coca-Cola, the soft drinks giant.

By contrast, in other sectors – like food – attitudes vary considerably by country, meaning high-end products, such as Ben & Jerry's or Haagen Dazs, may be more appropriate subjects for multinational campaigns than brands like Magnum and Breyers.

However, one element of marketing practice that can offer global benefits is sharing knowledge about tactics that have proved successful in individual nations, the learnings from which can be applied elsewhere without taking an overly prescriptive approach.

The FMCG giant's global communications planning director, Babs Rangaiah, argued that digital communications also require a similar strategy.

He said "even in the digital space, I think there's a lot of localization and customization that needs to be made", and this process has worked alongside an attempt to "infuse media sensibilities into the creative-development process on a global level, since many of our global campaigns are created" in London.

Marc Pritchard, Procter & Gamble's global brand-building officer, has also previously suggested that the Cincinnati-based corporation is "shifting toward thinking about how we can operate in a way where we have ideas that travel globally, but we still have to execute at the local level."

As such, Pritchard said that while campaigns and new products should have a global element, it is important to "make sure we have resources in each of the regions" to make sure product development and marketing achieve the required results.

Data sourced from AdAge; additional content by WARC staff