As part of the WARC Marketer’s Toolkit 2023, Conny Braams – Chief Digital and Commercial Officer at FMCG giant Unilever – shared with WARC’s Anna Hamill her thoughts on the existential risk of climate change, connecting with Gen Z and media transparency.

WARC subscribers can access the full Marketer’s Toolkit 2023 here. Non-subscribers can access a sample version here.

Conny Braams

Conny Braams, Chief Digital and Commercial Officer, Unilever

What does sustainability and tackling climate change look like at your brand, in terms of making tangible and measurable changes?

We believe that being a sustainable business, drives sustainable growth and superior performance for all our stakeholders. We see sustainability as a key performance driver – it delivers superior growth, it generates cost savings, reduces risks in our supply chain and helps us attract and retain the best talent.

When it comes to climate change, last year we set out our Climate Transition Action Plan which details the specific steps we will take to achieve net zero emissions across our value chain by 2039. The scale and reach of our business, with 3.4 billion people using our products every day, means we are uniquely placed to drive positive change through our brands, our people, our operations, and our eco-system.

Innovations are integral to driving this change. Our laundry brand Persil recently launched a new capsule that can be used in short, cold cycles (20° C and lower). This breakthrough is particularly important as it helps consumers save up to 60% of energy per use at home, and the capsules are sold in a fully recyclable cardboard box. Innovating for digital commerce in terms of value density helps us to innovate for sustainability too. For example, our Seventh Generation concentrated Easy Dose Detergent uses 60% less plastic, 50% less water and is 75% lighter than our 100oz bottle.

How has Unilever gone about embedding sustainability across the whole business, from comms to innovation, business ops, etc? What have been the lessons learned from this?

Without a healthy planet, we cannot have a healthy business. Climate change is a serious risk to business – it weakens agricultural supplies, damages manufacturing operations and is a major concern of the consumers who use our products.

We want to ensure sustainability is embedded across our entire value chain – from the way we source raw materials to the design and disposal of our products. In 2020, we launched the Unilever Compass which sets out our vision to deliver winning performance by being the global leader in sustainable business. The Compass is orientated around five strategic priorities – such as developing our portfolio into high-growth spaces and winning with our brands as a force for good. These are supported by a number of ambitious sustainability commitments in areas such as climate change, plastic reduction as part of a waste free world, regenerating nature and agriculture, and raising the living standards in our value chain.

We have clear roadmaps which set out some of the steps we will take to achieve these. For example, our Home Care business is working to replace fossil-derived chemicals in laundry products with renewable sources of carbon. Our Nutrition and Ice Cream businesses are expanding their plant-based portfolio with many of our well-known brands now offering plant-based options, such as Hellmann’s Vegan Mayonnaise and Magnum Vegan. As one of the world’s largest food companies, we have a critical role in making healthier and plant-based options more accessible to everyone.

We’ve also learned a lot along the way; three key lessons I’d like to call out:

  1. Set ambitious targets. Even if initially, we didn’t know how to reach them, we set a clear direction, we committed and we have seen that challenges spark creativity to solve the complexities on the way.
  2. Measuring progress is difficult – and honestly, we still don’t have all the answers.
  3. Making change happen internally is a great start but we cannot do this alone. The hardest part is helping consumers change their behaviours – highlighting the role of marketers to make sustainability simple and preferred for the consumer.
Sustainable products are often more expensive, which can be challenging in a cost of living crisis, even if consumers value it. How do Unilever’s brands communicate in that sweet spot of sustainability vs. price?

We are on a mission to make sustainable choices simple and preferred for consumers. We know that sustainability – in its broadest sense – is increasingly important to people. Circular packaging; reduced carbon footprint; no animal testing; paying a fair living wage; caring for the environment; promoting equity, diversity and inclusion.

We see brands are increasingly chosen for their value and their values. Value in terms of offering the right value equation of superior products at the right price, and values: having a point of view on matters people truly care about and, most importantly, taking action to drive positive change.  However, let me be clear, purpose is not a substitute for a good value proposition. First a brand must have a superior product at the right price, available when and where people want it. And then it can consider the dual nature of value and its values – what it stands for – its purpose.

While sustainability is integrated into everything that we do at Unilever, much of our sustainability actions are told by our brands – through creativity, compelling storytelling, breakthrough innovation and engaging platforms. We have some of the world’s best brands, and these brands are driving some real, meaningful change in the world.

For example, Hellmann’s purpose is to help tackle food waste in the home. Its purpose works because it’s built from the product truth that mayo can help turn leftovers into new and tasty meals. By first bringing our own factories in order and reducing food waste there, and then, helping consumers waste less food with mayonnaise. Since adopting the “Make Taste, Not Waste” brand platform, Hellmann’s has grown – 10% in 2020 and 11% in 2021 – while also inspiring over 200 million people to be more resourceful with their food.

As an advertiser, how is your relationship with Big Tech and the platforms evolving?

We have long been committed to create a safer more trusted digital environment, working together with our partners and the industry to drive systemic change.

In February 2018, we announced the Unilever Responsibility Framework, noting we needed to collectively rebuild trust online. It covers three areas: responsible platforms, responsible content and responsible infrastructure.

Since then, we founded the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) – a cross-industry initiative to address harmful content online and its monetisation through advertising. GARM’s launch recognised that all sectors of the advertising industry needed to come together to create new standards and solutions, where there were no standards previously accepted. This year, GARM announced new controls on misinformation and adjacency, as well as outlining its first steps to make the metaverse a safe space for advertising.

We are encouraged by the progress we have made with the industry, and we will continue to use our scale and influence to help protect people online – guided by Unilever’s Responsibility Framework and industry initiatives such as GARM – working closely with media platforms, publishers, agencies, tech partners, and peers to promote a positive digital advertising ecosystem for consumers, brands, and society.

How important is measurement and performance media in an economic downturn? Does this impact budget allocation and decision making?

Measurement is always a priority as we need to know how our investment is performing. Over the years, there have been shifts in measurement to balance long-term and short-term objectives. While we look at things like leading indicators or Marketing Mix Models with shorter time frames, and use these to drive corrective short-term action, we also continue to measure our long-term brand health and the impact of sustained media investment. True cross-platform measurement is essential, however it is still in development and this is something we continue to drive in partnership with other advertisers and industry bodies.

How do you approach the challenge of reaching Gen Z as their consumption shifts to less tried-and-tested channels and platforms? (e.g. gaming, metaverse, TikTok) 

Over the last few years we have seen the accelerated digitisation of people’s lives. As a result, our shape of spend has evolved with digital now accounting for more than 40% of media. We’re tapping into emerging growth opportunities and spending more in areas such as gaming, influencer marketing, entertainment, and digital commerce. In the last quarter, our digital commerce business saw underlying sales growth of 20% and it accounts for 14% of our business at Unilever. 

When it comes to the next iteration of the web, some of our brands have begun to experiment through partnerships, gaming and experiences, while surfacing important topics such as equity, diversity and inclusion, handwashing hygiene, and sustainability.

For example, Rexona/Degree/Sure hosted the world’s first marathon in the metaverse to help shape a more inclusive culture of movement in the virtual world. Sparking conversation on why representation in movement matters in both the digital and physical worlds.

Behind the scenes, we’re working to ensure we play a part in making this evolving arena representative, inclusive and safe for everyone who uses it. Robust governance around issues such as data privacy, safety, equity, diversity and inclusion, sustainability and ethics needs to be established, and we’re using our scale and global profile to help set future-fit foundations for our business and beyond.

Our Web3 Collective is a cross-functional group of subject matter experts representing areas such as marketing, finance, legal, media, procurement and licensing. Supported by colleagues from our brands, categories and markets as well as agency partners, they are helping Unilever navigate this new world.

To create a truly safe and trusted environment online, it’s imperative we all recognise the ethical and social dimensions of a borderless digital world. Web3 cannot be a mistake that the next generation pays for, so we are calling for collective action from advertisers, tech companies, regulators, governments and people to create a truly safe and trusted environment online. Because the currency in Web3 is not crypto; the currency is trust.

The rise of tribal marketing: rethinking segmentation and targeting

As the media landscape evolves, how are you approaching segmentation and targeting? Has your strategy evolved over the last few years? 

The accelerated digitisation of people’s lives has changed how consumers live, search, work, play and shop. In line with this consumer trend, commerce channels have become media channels, while media and entertainment channels have become commerce channels.  

Earlier this year, my role evolved from Chief Digital and Marketing Officer to Chief Digital and Commercial Officer. Commercial reflects both marketing and sales. We’ve not dropped marketing. We’ve added sales. Grouping marketing and sales in one team, is about organising for accelerated brand and customer growth in the digital era.  

To win in digital commerce, we have stopped treating e-commerce as a sales channel and we now innovate and design for the ecosystem, driving the special needs of these channels in terms of value density which helps us to innovate for sustainability too. And marketing and sales working together helps to drive category growth with our retail partners, starting by identifying consumer demand spaces and using data and AI to identify the right opportunities for mutual growth.  By using consented, Unilever owned 1st party data in our media activations, we can target specific audiences and drive growth.

Communities and interest groups, such as home cooks, are an increasingly powerful subset of influencer marketing. What opportunities do you see in this space? How are you responding?

As the Influencer landscape has exploded and matured, the number of opportunities has grown within it. For example, social commerce continues to evolve, fueled by influencers. With increasing comfort around shopping via platforms, brands can now use social commerce to obtain immediate consumer insights and use those conversions to more easily measure ROI.

COVID-19 accelerated live shopping’s appeal to at-home buyers. Buyers can watch people in real-time try on products and comment, allowing the brand to get feedback instantly. Influencers will often play a role as host or participant which can help to engage consumers in the content, as well as lend it credibility. Consumers in China have adopted the trend more quickly with a projected market increase this year to $242 billion dollars, estimated to reach half a trillion dollars by 2023.

We see huge opportunity in identifying audiences and informing influencer content by interest group. For example, when it comes to skin care lovers, Dove can identify key trends and topics relevant to their products and purpose-led brand activity and engage with the communities talking about them online, seeding out new product innovations to skin care lovers so that they can receive credible and authentic reviews across social channels, while also receiving direct feedback. This is a great way of gathering valuable consumer insights whilst also increasing social brand mentions.

When it comes to food waste, Unilever Food Solutions (UFS) – our global network of professional chefs that support foodservice businesses – provide culinary tips and tricks, recipes and ideas to the hospitality sector to help reduce waste in kitchens. And the learnings are accessible to all online on the UFS website including a free “Wise Up on Waste” programme designed for the hospitality sector.

When it comes to segmentation and targeting, how are you drawing a line between your strategy and the impact on marketing effectiveness?

There shouldn’t be a line between strategy and marketing effectiveness. The best segmentations are those that provide a starting point for continued iteration based on in-market performance. So, while we of course need to establish and prioritise audience segments at the strategic stage, they are built based on modular attribution sets, which enable us to evolve them over time as we learn more about what is and is not working so that we are always optimising our marketing.