Unilever adapts approach

05 July 2011

LONDON: Unilever, the FMCG giant, is adapting its approach to understanding consumers, advertising and brand management in a bid to drive growth.

Keith Weed, the firm's chief marketing and communications officer, argued "clubbing together" shoppers into emerging and mature markets, or even by nationality, is now inadequate.

"In fact, a 14-year-old boy has more in common across Mumbai, Sao Paulo and Beijing than across the demographics in just, say, Mumbai," he told CNBC-TV18.

"We look at people in particular lifestyle segments."

Similarly, Weed stated superficial divisions between traditional and digital media can also prove a hindrance.

Taking a more precise example, he asserted conceptions of television advertising need to be updated, reflecting a new ecosystem that is developing, based around content and video.

"Television is very important to us and will be for a long period of time," he said. "If you think about it, what is TV? It's a moving picture on a square screen."

"Whether that's going to be on your computer, on your mobile device, on [the] iPad, it's still a moving picture, and the whole video form is something that the consumer is engaged with significantly."

Given the rapid evolution of the landscape, Weed posited it may not be finances which ultimately make the difference, but generating creative material securing the necessary cut-through.

"We are not short of resources. What we are, like everyone else, short of is opportunities and ideas ... and I am very greedy in that area," he said.

"So I am trying to find new ways to innovate in this space. So you will continue to see us innovating."

One way Unilever has achieved this is leveraging "paid" media like TV and search ads with "owned" media such as official websites and "earned" media, including social networks.

"In that middle piece what we are trying to do is find ways of engaging consumers and building content, and in that we are creating partnerships with people who are engaged with our brand," said Weed.

The combination of media and branding is shown by the extension of Axe, Unilever's male personal care range, into the mobile telecoms arena in Latin America, where its name appears on handsets.

"So we are using the brand as a way to engage with consumers and give consumers benefits and services beyond just the products that we sell," Weed said.

Unilever is simultaneously strengthening the image of its corporate brand, a move also encouraged by the rise of new media, which makes it easy for shoppers to research companies.

"People want companies like us to be transparent and they want to learn more about Unilever. So we are promoting the Unilever brand more," Weed said.

Corporate social responsibility is another key area of interest falling under Unilever's scrutiny, from supply chain management to educating buyers.

Unilever also recently announced a reorganisation of its formal structure, prioritising categories rather than geographical regions.

"We made a greater focus on our categories to ensure that we have greater expertise and a greater driver behind our brands," Weed said.

"We are going to be very much the glue that brings the whole of the marketing organization together and focus on the expertise and driving our marketing high."

More broadly, Weed suggested Unilever's marketing set-up mirrored the dual needs of fuelling current growth while anticipating future trends.

"I have teams who are going at sort of two speeds really: one, being competitive today and the other's worrying about how we are going to be competitive tomorrow," said Weed.

Data sourced from CNBC-TV18; additional content by Warc staff