Brand building in e-commerce environments has emerged as a priority for marketers in the post-COVID world. Unilever’s Chief Digital and Marketing Officer, Conny Braams, shares the FMCG giant’s approach to growth in digital channels with WARC’s Anna Hamill.

Read WARC’s new report, ‘Rethinking Brand for the Rise of Digital Commerce’ here.

How have Unilever brands managed the shift to e-commerce, especially given the acceleration of uptake during COVID-19? 

Last year, we grew our e-commerce business by an impressive 61%. This was obviously accelerated by the pandemic with more people shopping online, but we also had a head start. We were prepared to scale our e-commerce business because we invested ahead of the curve in the right capabilities, technology and partnerships.  

Managing the shift is dependent on four elements:

  1. The first is portfolio: making sure you have the right portfolio to fit the channel including creating new propositions to tap into online demand spaces and value-dense offerings.
  2. The second is content. When a consumer is seeking out a product online, brands need to produce content that is engaging, high quality and accessible; whether that’s  clearly listing out ingredients, creating ‘how-to’ videos such as recipe tips, cleaning hacks or beauty consultations, or providing the sustainability data they are looking for.
  3. The third is investing in media across the end-to-end consumer journey: brands need to be visible and unmissable through search, brand stores and display advertising.
  4. And last but not least, you need digital talent to work seamlessly between marketing and sales to dynamically optimise and convert consumers by providing a great experience, not just convenience.
What you have learned about operating on e-commerce platforms – the challenges, opportunities, or lessons learned and applied? 

Strong brands do well in e-commerce. The convergence of media, entertainment and commerce offers many exciting opportunities for brands to grow. Online shopping is being reinvented and it’s bringing with it new consumers. Brands needs to provide unmissable services, content and experiences. Investing in automation and machine learning to target and scale content quickly allows our teams to focus on the essential human elements of the creative process.  

However, the fast-changing landscape requires new skills and expertise, new ways of working and dynamic optimisation. And there is no single recipe for success. The complexities of working with many different e-commerce platforms across pure play and omnichannel demands real expertise from our teams. It’s important to hire specialists as well as upskill talent to build valuable experience.  

How was Unilever approached shoppable media, and content development targeted at e-commerce?

Rather than shoppable media, we like to think of it as shoppable assets across all media channels. Every asset has the opportunity to convert, we don’t like dead ends. We have developed a five-step approach to shoppable assets; we ensure we have the right destinations mapped out, the right content, the right shoppable technology, the right creative to help conversion, and the right measurement to optimise in real time.  

Has there been an impact more broadly on where Unilever invests its media budget as a result of the e-commerce boom?

We’re focused on where the consumer is. Our media mix is always changing based on the job to be done, rather than one media versus another. As the number of consumers increase in retail platforms, and as and when these consumers become addressable via responsible retailer media options, we will see industry investment increase.  

What’s your current take on the balance between investment in long-brand building and performance marketing?

I see no trade-off. Marketing is no longer just about balancing the short and the long term. Digitisation is enabling us to serve both long- and short-term marketing and sales objectives in the same place, because media channels are becoming commerce channels and commerce channels  are becoming media channels. If you look at retailer platforms, they are now media platforms where you can both build brands as well as drive conversion.

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