Unilever’s outgoing Chief Marketing & Communications Officer tells WARC's Anna Hamill the Unilever campaign he is most proud of, how failing can be helpful, and the lessons from a product launch which wasn’t a success.

Which campaigns are you most proud of in your time at Unilever – that moved the business forward or were ground breaking?

In 2005, I took over our global laundry and household care business. Our big central brand – the most loved brand in Brazil – is a brand called OMO. We have all these big iconic brands around the world, but our business was challenged at the time. And of course, I talk a little bit about getting close to consumers, and also closer to the product performance and how people used our products. But ultimately we needed to build a portfolio of brands. We came up with this idea around ‘dirt is good’. And ‘dirt is good’, in itself, sounds a bit funny for a fabric-cleaning brand. But the notion was, actually, dirt is good. People learn by experimenting and getting out into the world. Under this purposeful position of ‘dirt is good’, we put in a lot of work around child development. For instance, in Vietnam, we campaigned to have the law changed; at the time there was not a play break in the school curriculum and we campaigned to say, "No. Kids should have a break during the day to go outside and learn about life.”

We’ve built playgrounds for kids under OMO – or whichever the particular brand is – under this whole area of ‘dirt is good’. We’ve commissioned white papers. We have a campaign which talks about how criminals in high-security prison in the US have more outdoor time than kids do.

‘Dirt is good’ is a great example of a brand with purpose. By the way, the brand has gone on to grow and grow and grow, and it’s been a tremendous business success. But I think championing the needs of child development is one I’d be proud of and it turned the business around as well.

What about one that perhaps you learned from that didn’t go quite to plan – something that you took lessons from and were able to improve next time?

I do believe ultimately if you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough – you can learn an awful lot. If you don’t learn from your mistakes then that is the only mistake you’re making. Anyway, as Edison said about the light bulb, he didn’t have thousands of fails to go create a light bulb. Each one taught him a lesson on how to make the light bulb work.

I suppose I would think about the launch of a brand called Trust, in the US. I’d just gone to the US and we launched Trust antiperspirant deodorant (in 1988). We launched this in the test market. The advertising was good. The packaging was good. But the product wasn’t good enough. And sure enough, with advertising you can always sell a product once, but you won’t sell it the second or third time. For a big advertiser like Unilever, you only start making money on these products when they’re sold the second and third time, not the first time… And we didn’t succeed.

Many years later, I was the lead in buying a company called Helene Curtis in the US… and they had a brand called Degree. I'm pleased to say that Degree is now in that position in the US, and I’m pleased to say we are the leaders in antiperspirant deodorant in the US and indeed, the leaders still globally.

But the lesson I learnt is, at the end of the day you’ve got to serve people with a great product, and if you’re going to launch against an entrenched competitor it better be a better product.

Read more from WARC’s interview with Keith Weed. In part two (click  here), he reveals what Unilever has learned from its acquisition of Dollar Shave Club, the direct to consumer opportunity, and which trends are shaping FMCG.

In part three (click here), Weed shares the secret to effectively localising a multinational brand and why sustainability must be more than just a brand message.