Unilever taps behavioural economics

23 November 2011

LONDON: Unilever, the fast moving consumer goods manufacturer, is utilising behavioural economics and new technology as it seeks to help shoppers make healthy and eco-friendly choices.

In a new report, Richard Wright, behavioural science director at Unilever, argued the firm has leveraged its understanding of science and technology to promote positive change among consumers.

Such efforts have included encouraging people to wash their hands before meals, clean their teeth and use products in a sustainable way, often by giving marketers "accessible principles" to deploy.

"Probably the most powerful means that Unilever's R&D team has to change people's behaviour lies in the large number of consumers we reach," said Wright.

Unilever's brands are used 2bn times a day, and can shape everything from people's dietary and hygiene habits to their environmental impact, thus influencing the well-being of individuals and the planet.

"If we can help all our consumers to make small changes in behaviour then, multiplied by billions of uses, this can make a huge difference to our world," he added. "Subtle changes in product design can enable these changes."

Rather than "manipulation", Wright drew on ideas from the book Nudge (reviewed here) to suggest modest actions like putting healthy foods at eye level in stores can result in "the right choice" becoming "the easy and desirable choice."

Unilever has encouraged people to buy concentrated Omo and Persil laundry liquids, which cut water use and transport emissions, as packs are smaller. A cap on bottles shows how much liquid to use, so customers do not overfill.

Insights from Vietnam and India also revealed people hand-washing clothes used three buckets of water to ensure all the foam disappeared. Unilever's Comfort One Rinse dispersed less foam, and thus needed a single rinse.

"The key to reducing our environmental footprint is, in part ... about creating products that shape people's behaviour while at the same time improving their product experience," Wright said.

Unilever has also built motion-activated sensors to use in consumer trials, and a study of 100 UK families discovered the average shower lasted longer than expected, and on 25% of occasions ran enough water for a bath.

"These and other insights ... will drive our efforts into 'nudging' people into taking more sustainable showers," said Wright. "In order to change behaviours, technology can and must be key."

Data sourced from Unilever; additional cotnent by Warc staff