Following the declaration of a new marketing philosophy for FMCG titan Unilever, Mike Teasdale questions how the precept will filter down into the reality of the company’s work.

If you had to choose, would you spend your time as a marketer focusing on the top line or the bottom line or the pipeline or the frontline? 

Think about that for a moment…

For me, it would be the frontline because understanding people unlocks opportunities that make everything else possible.

So, it was interesting to note Unilever's roll-out of its new marketing philosophy to "Get on the Frontline"

This involves three principles: “Get Real”, which is about being closer to the gritty reality of our world and then using data combined with that empathy to solve real life problems; “Do Good”, which is about ensuring brand purpose spurs positive change for people and the planet; and “Be Unmissable”, which is about creativity and accessibility to ensure brands are first in mind and first to hand.

Unilever already has a fantastic track record of doing good, as was evidenced yet again during the COVID-19 crisis when their strong cash flow and balance sheet meant they could contribute €100m to help the fight through donations of soap, sanitiser, bleach, and food. Doing good is good business.

Unilever also has a fantastic track record of being unmissable, consistently delivering stand-out executions on famous communications platforms like Real Beauty, The Axe Effect, and Dirt is Good.

But what of Unilever’s track record in getting real? In my view, this principle will prove much harder to embed within the organization and will require them to overcome major barriers. 

There is the barrier of difference. The truth is that their marketers, especially the senior global brand category players, live gilded lives. No amount of accompanied shopping trips or ethnography studies or social media monitoring can overcome the fact that these people are nothing like the masses they seek to influence. And that’s an issue because marketing is a practical discipline, not an academic exercise. It is a contact sport that requires connection and empathy.

For example, when I worked on the Becel brand (before they sold their Spreads business) I wanted to explore the connection between margarine and sex. Heart health margarine should not be about helping you avoid dying, it should be about helping you keep a good thing going and for many over 60’s today that means a sex life that their parents never experienced at any age, let alone in their 60’s. Unilever wasn’t up for exploring that avenue but this is exactly the kind of thinking they need to be pursuing if they’re serious about getting real. 

Beyond the barrier of difference, there is also the barrier of process. Unilever is weighed down with marketing and research tools it uses to control the chaos of developing concepts and ideas. The problem is these tools are built on unrealistic foundations, treating humans as rational beings who make decisions based on knowledge. Worse still, these flawed diagnostic aids are routinely mis-used as judgement gates or arse-covering insurance policies. The system is rotten, but they’ve got too much benchmark data in the bank to walk away.

I’ve sat in countless meetings at Unilever where they obsess about the proposition they want to communicate, fret about measuring how well that information is delivered, and stress about how engaged the audience is with the message. But while that might create the illusion of control over what is a scary and uncertain endeavour, the reality is that people don’t make buying decisions the way Unilever makes messaging decisions. 

Unilever is obsessed with information when psychology tells us that humans are non-consumers of information. Humans have neither the time nor the processing power to do so. Instead, the brain devises intuitive strategies to help us make instant decisions driven by unconscious emotional reactions. At best, rational information-processing is used to justify and make us feel good about the emotional decision we’ve already made.

If Unilever really wants to get real, it somehow needs to do more of three things…

  • Connect with more people outside the bubble of formal research and embrace the messiness of those people’s lives because that’s where the rich insights and powerful human truths lie. 
  • Get more emotional and tap into the intuitive nature of decision-making. Stop worrying about what people say they think and start understanding how they feel when experiencing Unilever communications.
  • Focus more on disruption. Unilever worries about being rejected when they should worry about being ignored. If you disrupt people and stir their emotions and reward their attention and make choosing you easy then maybe, just maybe, you have a chance of not being ignored. 

My experience of working with Unilever marketers is they are committed and decent folk who genuinely want to do well by doing good. But they are currently trapped in a matrix that is far from the reality of the frontline they now seek to stand on.