Unilever adapts approach to branding

15 June 2010

LONDON: Unilever, the FMCG giant, is adapting its approach to branding and marketing in response to several major trends that are reshaping consumer preferences and behaviour.

In an interview with AdAge, Keith Weed, Unilever's chief marketing officer, said the company's current model of "brand development" was based on establishing products with a worldwide appeal.

"Brand development is in charge of the brand positioning, the brand advertising and indeed the innovation packaging," said Weed.

"There are more similarities between the Axe consumer in Wisconsin, Mumbai, Rio and Shanghai than there is between the Axe consumer in Wisconsin and [his] mom, the sister and uncle."

Such an overarching strategy is now employed in parallel with the output of Unilever's "brand builders" in the various markets in which it has a presence.

"The brand builders are very much in a country so they are engaging with consumers and, importantly, retailers and ensuring we are very active in any local media," said Weed.

"Brand builders [drive] the local buzz and the excellence in execution. The brand developers enable us to leverage our scale and innovation in R&D and brand innovation in terms of equity in advertising."

Alongside rolling out well-known offerings like Lipton in Spain and Domestos in Italy, Unilever is also looking to focus on other "white spaces" where it has yet to achieve a broad reach.

The main factors behind its policy in this area include the digital revolution and the increasing importance of emerging nations like Brazil, Russia, India and China.

"Digitalisation and globalisation feed on each other," said Weed. "The more global you are, the more digital you become, or the more digital you are, the more global you become."

In reflection of these shifts, Unilever consolidated its agency roster last year in order to ally with the shops that "infinitely understand" its brands.

"We want to work with the best wherever they may be," said Weed.

While it can be "much harder" to coordinate separate providers for traditional and online media, Weed suggested that, for the moment at least, there was not a genuine alternative.

"I would love to be able to go to Ogilvy or Lowe and have them give me all my communication needs," said Weed.

"[Traditional agencies] are investing hugely in digital, and I'm absolutely convinced they will get there because, as I've said to all of them, we're going to fish where the fish are," Weed said.

According to Unilever's estimates, consumers are exposed to between 2,000 and 10,000 advertising messages each day, making it difficult to cut through the clutter.

One way it is seeking to achieve this objective is through co-creation projects.

Unilever recently launched a competition seeking to crowdsource content for 13 brands, including Ben & Jerry's and Lipton.

However, Weed argued that while Peperami, Unilever's salami snack in the UK, is now relying solely on this tactic, the company's agencies should not be overly concerned.

"I don't think they should see it as a threat, because to me this is about engaging with people; you need to be a little bit playful and give people opportunities," said Weed.

"If I'm experimenting ... it doesn't necessarily mean that I am going to apply it everywhere. But it does mean that I'm going to learn, and I prefer to learn on a small brand or in a small country."

Data sourced from AdAge; additional content by Warc staff