LONDON: Unilever, the FMCG group, believes building trust with shoppers and enhancing its green credentials can "reinvent" consumption patterns in mature, and particularly emerging, markets.
Speaking to GreenWise Business, Paul Polman, Unilever's chief executive, suggested that the onset of the economic downturn offered a chance for companies to engage customers in new ways.
"I have always said that it was as much an ethical crisis as it was a financial one," he said. "I think this is a great time for brands which can provide a beacon of trust for consumers."
The surging uptake of social media, a development running largely alongside the recession, means corporations have another significant motivation to connect with web users, Polman asserted.
"Today's consumers have tremendous power. There are 750m people on Facebook, making it the third biggest 'nation' in the world; 200m on Twitter and growing fast. And they're increasingly aware of their connectivity and the power that brings," he said.
"If we can harness that power, we are in an ideal position to be a force for good. Unilever has 2bn consumers using our products every day. No nation state can reach that many people."
Such a process may be most effective in fast-growth economies like Brazil, Russia, India and China, where habits have not yet become consolidated.
"If it's mindless consumption like we see in the West, it's not going to be very pretty. So we have a unique opportunity to reinvent consumption; to bring about what we could call 'mindful consumption,'" Polman said.
Unilever's core strategic goals to achieve this include arming all of its products with a social "mission" and halving its ecological impact. In sum, the firm's actions should boost its individual and corporate brands, Polman predicted.
"I think that by 2020, people will be saying, 'I'm not only buying into what the individual brands stand for, but what the company stands for.' So yes, that's the Unilever brand I'm talking about," he said.
As well as reaching shoppers, suppliers and retailers, Polman argued it was vital to secure the buy-in of a final body of stakeholders: investors.
"At the end of the day we have to convince our investors that it's also a good business model for growth. That's why I always emphasise that we're doubling our business, otherwise it doesn't work," he said.
Data sourced from GreenWise Business; additional content by Warc staff