LONDON: Unilever, the FMCG giant, is focusing on consumer insights and empowering its brands with a social "purpose" to drive growth.

Speaking to PricewaterhouseCoopers, Paul Polman, the organisation's chief executive, suggested the downturn had dramatically altered the popular view of major corporations.

"Some studies have shown that confidence in business has fallen as low as 14%. Right now, people look inward - to friends, family, relatives - for guidance and advice.

"But every crisis brings with it the opportunity to do things differently, and in that regard, the economic contraction may change attitudes and behaviours in a positive way."

Similarly, the idea of value has transformed in the long term, going beyond offering staples at good prices to using brands as a quality guarantee, and then delivering experiences.

"Today, the concept of value is increasingly associated with products that demonstrate social responsibility," Polman said.

"A successful product must provide utility, but it must also exhibit a social consciousness, if you will."

In reflection of this, Unilever recently unveiled the Sustainable Living Plan, outlining numerous ambitious environmental objectives.

"What you're dealing with is increased pressure and incentive for business to take greater responsibility for society as a whole," said Polman.

In another response to this transition, each Unilever brand now embodies a "purpose", exemplified by Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty or Lipton's target of acquiring all tea from sustainable sources.

"Every brand must have a social mission and the consumer must have an integral part in defining that mission," said Polman.

"By drinking Lipton Tea, a lone consumer can become part of a movement of millions of other people around the world that supports a socially responsible product. People want to be part of a movement like that."

Such a policy builds equity in affluent nations and also strengthens perceptions in emerging economies, which combine urgent ecological problems with a desire to raise living standards.

"Brands that support a sustainability agenda may actually be more pertinent to developing countries because of the immediate pressures those countries face with regard to climate change, food shortages [and] population growth," Polman said.

Indeed, Unilever predicts 70% of sales should be drawn from these markets by the close of the decade, requiring a substantial modification in priorities.

"The values at the heart of our company certainly won't change, but our culture and business model will need to evolve to reflect a changing customer demographic," Polman continued.

Simultaneously, the rise of digital platforms has given shoppers an arena to air grievances and opinions, and social networks, in particular, host a huge audience for favourable or critical remarks.

"Consumers are using the internet to make their expectations known," said Polman.

"And if you can fulfil those consumer expectations - which is what we're trying to do with our Sustainable Living Plan - there's tremendous opportunity for business."

Unilever's Sustainable Living Plan garnered 2m comments on Twitter just hours after its official announcement, proving the potential power of new media as a resource for shopper insights.

"It's very important to understand where consumer trends are headed and to position your company as a leader of those trends," said Polman.

"If you understand what consumers want and have products that meet their needs, you can grow - regardless of macroeconomic conditions."

Data sourced from PricewaterhouseCoopers; additional content by Warc staff