Conny Braams, Unilever’s Chief Digital and Marketing Officer, stepped into the job just weeks before COVID-19 hit. She speaks to WARC’s Anna Hamill for WARC Marketer’s Toolkit 2021 about adapting the 4Ps for e-commerce, the relevance of brand purpose, and moving forward with innovation during a volatile period.

You started in the top marketing job at Unilever in January 2020 – it's been quite a year to start. How did you initially respond as a marketing team to the shock of COVID-19?

It’s been hectic, but also a huge opportunity to set priorities straight from the start. Even though those priorities might be at times a little bit different than usual times, it also gave us an opportunity to see the trends that were already happening and have accelerated due to COVID-19. It’s been volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

The priority was making sure that our people are safe and that their wellbeing was taken care of… these are things that normally matter, obviously, but working from home brings a completely new dimension to it. The second thing I would highlight is that the speed and agility needed to really operate in this environment was different from usual. On the other hand, now (we are) living with COVID-19 for a little longer, there are pockets of things that we want to continue and that speed and agility are part of it.

Key insights:

  • A renewed focus on brand purpose, demonstrating value and embracing e-commerce will be major priorities for Unilever in 2021.
  • E-commerce needs an end-to-end strategy: price, product, promotion, or place but now also content creation, media strategy, analytics and supply chain.
  • Clear prioritisation, communication and agile ways of working are crucial to respond quickly to volatility, especially when everyone is working from home.
What are some of the trends from this time that Unilever will take into the future?

When COVID-19 happened, we took a look at what the future might look like. We saw a couple of things that have been short-term, like stocking up, which we knew wasn't going to last. But we also saw things happening in the different categories in which we operate that were going to last.

From a consumer lens, the thing that we're sure is going to stick is brand purpose. In a time where the earth has been shaken up by such a terrible event as COVID-19, people are becoming way more aware of the world we live in and what an impact it has. If we take a look at the Edelman Trust Barometer, you see that 85% of people say that brands need to help in solving their problems, and 80% of consumers are telling us that they want brands to solve societal problems. People are way more engaged on purpose. There's a huge opportunity for brands to tap into a deeper level of what people are concerned about.

From a geography perspective, what Unilever sees happening across the globe – and it doesn't really matter where you are – is that we are entering a time of recession. Deep global recession will be part of our lives for the coming years. That means that people will choose brands that they usually know already, there's trust in the value that these brands offer. We also need to be able to really provide for cash-strapped consumers, which means that we need to take a look at our price architecture and come forward with affordable prices or specific packs that are suited for more cash-deprived audiences. That is happening across the world in different phases and magnitudes – there are more resilient countries and those more seriously affected at this moment in time, such as India.

From a channel perspective, obviously it’s e-commerce. We see that lots of people are now shopping online, including groups who were not so used to it. Pure players are really accelerating. We’re also seeing omni-channel, where people were shopping offline first then online, again, showing that trust in brands they know. We have seen that accelerating, and against that new opportunities have also come up. At Unilever we've added €2.2 billion to our business due to the further acceleration of e-commerce in its totality, with direct-to-consumer now an important part. More than 8% of our total sales are now coming through e-commerce. At the end of 2019, that figure was just over 6%.

Conny Braams, Chief Digital and Marketing Officer, Unilever

WARC recently released data on e-commerce investment which showed that brands will spend US$58.5 billion on e-commerce advertising this year in response to the boom on online shopping. How are you adapting the 4Ps – your marketing fundamentals  to capitalise on that trend?

We see e-commerce really booming. On e-commerce, you need to really think about it end-to-end: what does it mean for your portfolio, but also for your price, product, promotion, or place? But also for your content creation, media strategy, analytics and supply chain? It is an end-to-end opportunity, I would say, but it really requires something of an organisation.

Let's look at portfolio fit. Obviously, the choice in e-commerce is way bigger so your ‘stand out’ needs to be more profound. There's actually two big things happening: first of all is premiumization. People are looking for more premium products, have more time to browse around and really look for those offers that are attuned to their personal preferences.

The second one that is also really important in designing for e-commerce is concentration and value density. What you really see is, for instance, our eco-fills that need to be diluted in water or capsule (products) are really suited for e-commerce, as well as things like gift sets or bundle packs. Then, of course, that needs to be produced from a supply chain. We used to have a supply chain designed for scale and long runs, now there’s smaller minimum order quantities, more frequent runs, and more bundling happening.

If you look at content, how do we make sure that we stand out? The shelf is elastic in e-commerce. That's not something that we are used to from the past so, there, differentiation really matters. We’re working together with all the marketers to make sure that you can almost ‘walk the store’ online to make sure that we deliver the best possible user experience, and that we are proud of our brands whether it's in an e-commerce environment or a bricks-and-mortar environment. I think that is a really crucial element of it as well.

We're spending way more money on performance marketing, making sure that the content is shoppable and it’s easier for consumers to make a purchase. So, it does have some consequences in its totality and makes it possible to personalise the offering way better. That immediately brings in the element of making sure that the data that we use conforms to the strictest privacy matters and that we use it in an ethical way. But as long as the value equation really works for the consumer – that something is extremely relevant for the things that we offer, in exchange of the data that we use – I think this is a great future for us and we can really innovate on the basis of it.

According to WARC’s survey data, investment in brand marketing will take a hit in 2021. Unilever put a pause on some spending earlier in the year, but how are you approaching long-term brand growth now that the COVID-19 situation will not be short-term?

Across Unilever’s different categories, there was a surge in demand for hygiene products, hand sanitizer, and everything that had to do with in-home cooking because nobody was spending time outside of their house anymore. We also saw some other categories, of course, getting less demand.

There was a little bit less spending in the beginning of Q2, but I think quite quickly we've come to the conclusion that if we are going to enter a recession then normally the brands that continue to spend come out much stronger. Secondly, we saw it wasn't a one-size fits-all. Obviously in times where there's a real increase in demand for categories in which we operate, it is also time to invest and make sure that people have our brands top of mind.

Brand purpose was much more in the minds of consumers. This was the ultimate time for us to make sure that people were seeing our brands as purposeful, and that we wanted to be part of the solution. We know if we invest behind brand purpose, this is not only something that drives long term-brand power, there is also a short-term dimension. We need to drive what is meaningful and how our brand is different, but it's also about salience and being top of mind when the consumer does their shopping. We've really seen that there's a direct correlation between brand purpose and brand power, and that brand power has a long term but also short-term effect.

So we've completely come back. Of course, we are always taking a very good look at the media infrastructure and where to invest – it’s best to fish where the fish are. But at this moment in time, we're actually investing quite a bit because we know that our offerings do matter at this moment in time, even more so than before.

Over the last six or so months, Unilever has launched new products and new delivery platforms on shortened timelines and during a pandemic. What changes have you made internally to be able to respond to that volatility and move those projects forward?

We launched the Lifebuoy hand-soap brand in over 50 markets in 100 days, and we also increased capacity by around 600x across several brands – not just Lifebuoy. What was crucial to make that happen was, first of all, clear prioritisation: what were the categories that were in huge demand?

Secondly, we made sure that everybody was up to speed with all the new things that were happening. We introduced the COVID-19 newsroom, for instance, for all our marketing teams… Because everybody's working from home, we had for almost daily Q+As with the marketing teams in the beginning, just making sure that everybody was very quickly up to speed with the latest developments on the consumer front, the new opportunities that were opening up, and the priorities we had set ourselves.

Within that, we saw that the ecosystem was way more capable of handling these changes because there was such a surge in demand happening… the connection with the trends externally, but also ways of working internally, made it possible… we had already started working more in an agile way before, first with ‘flex’ then later with some of the bigger programmes we were driving, so we didn't start from scratch. I think that has been a huge accelerator for this to be able to work within Unilever.

What do you think that the next year will hold for your data marketing strategy? Are you anticipating any major changes, especially with the ‘cookie-less future’?

There's always the offense and the defence side of data. I think from a governance perspective – and especially seeing what the world is moving towards – it is really important that we stay true to transparency and trust, that our data ethics at the highest level, that our governance is really in place and do the best possible to make sure that consumers feel that their data is treated in the most optimal way. That is on the defence side.

On the offense side, how do we use data? With changes in the ecosystem and the cookie-less world, I think we will see a bit of a change happening. What I'm referring to is that we would be still looking at trying to target consumers with the messaging that we see mostly fit and relevant for them. But then again, it might be more context-related, so that we have advanced contextual targeting to reach audiences more effectively online. That, in the end, is still towards the ultimate aim of marketing, isn't it? To get the right message to the right people at the right moment in time. So yes, further changes will continue to happen in this ever-changing ecosystem.

From a leadership perspective, what has been the most important thing you have personally learned this year about marketing in a crisis and also leading a team through a crisis?

I think whilst we're in a storm, what I’ve learned most is that actually it is important to stick to the fundamentals. We have defined five fundamentals of growth: purpose for brands, penetration, innovation, design for channel and fuel to invest in growth. Whilst you’re in a storm, these fundamentals do still matter a lot, so these are the drivers for the execution of our strategy and marketing. These have held true throughout this year of crisis.