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Unilever's Asad Rehman speaks data, purpose and personalisation

Opinion, 09 May 2017
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At the 2017 Dubai Lynx festival, Asad Rehman, Director Media, North Africa & Middle East, Unilever, and chair of the inaugural WARC Prize for MENA Strategy, was interviewed by Tod Donhauser, CEO of Edelman UAE, as part of Edelman's series of Brand Breakfasts at the festival. Lucy Aitken reports.

TD: What has been the biggest change you have witnessed over the last 12-18 months?

AR: Our biggest challenge is how digital has disrupted the industry in all ways and means. It has led to, in most cases, specialisation and fragmentation of skills and work for the sake of it. Our job of paying attention to holistic brand and consumer experiences has become more difficult. Creating a big idea or an experience that runs seamlessly through the consumer journey has almost become impossible. The question is, who owns that upstream holistic thinking? Should we bring it in-house, or should the agencies own it?

TD: What advertising do you wish you had done?

AR: For its pure local insights, the Nike Women campaign for the Middle East was a phenomenal execution.

TD: Are marketers in synch with how people consume content?

AR: I wouldn't think so; we are clearly behind consumers. After all, it is not us who set the content trends, consumers shape the industry. They not only consume the content, they have also become content-creators and influencers, defining this new landscape. A part of our job now is to help consumers with what they're trying to do and facilitate. At the end of the day, our job is to add value to their lives.

Unilever's partnership with YouTube and Google on finding the next set of influencers in the region is an example of how we are trying to do that. It is a bit like the Pop Idol of the online content creation world. As part of that project, we're creating a network support solution for people who want to create content and know how they work with brands. Efforts like these benefit the industry, and, of course, land a benefit for our brands too.

Any big brand has its purpose well defined. What we have done at Unilever is created brand platform propositions that can land across the world – and that are based on universal consumer insights. For example Dirt is Good started out in the UK with detergent brand Persil and is now a global platform.

 Landing universal truths across geographies isn't simple. But cutting through that complexity is what makes big brands big. Coming up with big ideas without having a purpose is becoming increasingly difficult as consumers increasingly look for more than just utility of the product in a brand. Brands really have become a force for good in the world. When you give Persil the purpose of child development, or Dove the purpose of Real Beauty, or Lifebuoy the purpose of teaching hand hygiene to kids across the world - that's when people get really motivated.

TD: How do you measure effectiveness?

AR: Data is at the heart of the modern convergent world. It brings everything together and is, most of the time, the backbone that holds everything together. So it's important to create that backbone first and foremost. At Unilever, we have been on a journey to create that backbone of data. Data that drives decision-making.

TD: In an era of mass marketing and mass personalisation, how long can campaigns sustain a TVC as their central focus?

AR: I work for a company that has built its success on its ability to mass market products through mass media. So this is a big challenge for us. The way we are solving it is through what we call "personalisation at scale" – the ability to deliver tailored message to different segments of consumers whilst reaching the right number of consumer cross various segments. Obviously, it is important for mass market goods to reach mass number of audiences. But reaching them with the same message or proposition is not the solution anymore.

Technology and data enable this personalisation and customisation at scale today. We use global platforms like Celtra to deliver dynamic creative assets onto mobile screens. For example, a couple of months ago, one of our household cleaning brands, Jif, ran 78 7-second pre-rolls videos on YouTube based on various searches people performed on the platform. So instead of the same message going to millions of people at the same time, the audience was segmented into 78 different groups based on their search habits. While the message remained essentially the same, the context of the message was different, and that context delivered greater relevance and salience.

The deadline for entries for the 2017 WARC Prize for MENA Strategy is 12 May. Please email menaprize@warc.com if you have any questions. Entry is free and there's a $10K prize fund for winning entries.

About the author

Lucy Aitken is Warc's Case Study Editor.

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