MOY 2019: Sharon MacLeod builds bridges to the next generation of men

How our first Marketer of the Year is applying "Real Beauty" lessons to the Dove Men+Care line.

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This week, strategy is rolling out our profiles of the 2019 Marketers of the Year. Be sure to check out all of this year’s honourees as the week rolls on, and see who the overall winner is when they are revealed at this year’s AToMiC Awards.

This story originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Strategy.

For Sharon MacLeod, celebrating fatherhood isn’t just business, it’s personal.

The global VP – along with her three older brothers – was raised by her dad after her mother died in a car accident when she was just a baby. So when MacLeod took over the Dove Men+Care global line in August 2016, honouring and empowering dads was a top priority. She knew that would resonate emotionally with consumers and ultimately drive growth.

MacLeod got her start in marketing at Unilever Canada in 1998 and spent the last two decades working her way up the company’s corporate ladder. The marketer, who hails from Southwestern Ontario, moved to the U.S. in 2014 to take on the role of VP personal care for Unilever’s entire North American region. Then, in 2016, she became global VP for Dove Men+Care and has since added marketing roles focused on brand purpose and philosophy, as well as hired a larger digital team. She works directly with 12 staff in the New Jersey office and approximately another 100, who work on Dove Men+Care, as well as other Unilever brands scattered across the globe.

Dove, already well-known for its women’s personal care products, branched out with a separate line for men in 2010. MacLeod has since focused on making the Dove Men+Care brand resonate with the male target on a more emotional level, just as the women’s lines have for years. Having led the charge on Dove’s women-focused and uber-successful “Real Beauty” movement and campaign, as well as the brand’s Self-Esteem Project in Canada, MacLeod proved that tapping into universal truths that pull at consumers’ heartstrings works.

Kicking off on Father’s Day 2018, MacLeod has been infusing purpose into the Dove brand through the “Dear Future Dads” campaign (created by Virtue, with Edelman on PR) that encourages more men to take paternity leave. In a moving spot, men are featured talking about their emotions. There’s a seemingly tough guy rocking a red bandana who says that after seeing his child for the first time, his reaction was “I’m a puddle. You own me.” Next, a dad is tending to his daughter, who loves that he’s her best friend. The kicker comes when a man covered in neck tattoos starts tearing up while talking about his son. The affecting 70-second ad shows that men can be both soft and tough.

MacLeod and her team did extensive research in the 50 countries where Dove Men+Care products are sold prior to the campaign launch. They found that the traditional masculinity paradigm is being chipped away.

The brand also worked with Virtue, a Vice Media-owned creative agency, to better understand that male millennial target, says MacLeod. “Millennial guys are in this position where their fathers are in the old traditional roles and they feel the pressure of that. Yet they do things very differently, so sometimes they’re pushing back against an older generation.”
Screen Shot 2018-11-13 at 11.26.17 AMWhile there was some concern about backlash from interest groups arguing that fighting for maternity leave and women’s rights is more important, MacLeod was confident that championing paternity leave was the right call. She reached out to women’s groups to gauge their reaction to “Dear Future Dads” before its launch and many were in full support – because having dads engage in child-rearing ultimately helps women too, she notes. And while the #MeToo movement had picked up steam in early 2018, just before the campaign launch, MacLeod felt there was room in the public conversation to acknowledge the sins of the minority while celebrating the majority of what she calls “good guys doing good things.” Her instincts were spot on. The campaign has so far tracked over one billion media impressions.

“The sentiment was remarkable. In all of our social listening it was 100% positive,” says MacLeod. “I’ve never seen that. Ever.”

Before the paternity leave push, and prior to MacLeod’s arrival, the male grooming brand had already seen some success with campaigns that celebrated a multi-faceted masculinity. Its “#RealStrength” platform, for example, celebrated “real heroes” in early 2016, featuring men in acts of caring.

Showing, and celebrating, the softer side of masculinity has been a winning strategy: Dove Men+Care became the #1 male grooming brand in Canada in 2017 and increased its leadership position following the “Dear Future Dads” campaign, says MacLeod.

Its biggest competitor in Canada is Old Spice (owned by Unilever competitor, Procter & Gamble), which has taken a surreal tongue-in-cheek tone for years. MacLeod’s decision for Dove Men+Care to be the antithesis of hyper-masculine brands, like Old Spice, has resulted in the brand growing 39 basis points in the past 18 months in North America (it also leads growth amongst all Unilever personal care brands globally).

MacLeod not only started a global conversation about paternity leave outside of Unilever, but within the global behemoth as well.

“We felt the only way we could champion it externally was if we were walking the walk as a company,” she recalls.

Paternity leave programs differ wildly, not only from country-to-country, but company-to-company, with some not offering any time off at all. But now, at Unilever, every new dad gets a minimum of three weeks leave, says MacLeod. Even when companies offer paternity leave, men often don’t feel comfortable taking it: company research found that 26% of Canadian fathers didn’t take any time off work when their youngest child was born or adopted. So now the company’s global marketing departments hold events to encourage workers to actually take leave.

“I’m very connected to Canada, but when you go to other countries in the world it’s very different,” says MacLeod. “When you go to Japan, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, even the U.K. [it’s not so progressive]. So I’m mapping the whole world to see where men are in this continuum of ‘traditional’ versus ‘progressive.’”

Screen Shot 2018-11-13 at 11.26.01 AMUntil attitudes towards paternity change, the global VP will keep going.

Celebrating dads, and ultimately, getting more men to take paternity leave is set to be a multi-year initiative, says the marketer. There will be another push this Father’s Day and she’s set her sights on having an even bigger impact with a full-length documentary in the works. Jurassic Park actor Bryce Dallas Howard is directing the brand’s first feature-length doc and her father, acclaimed director Ron Howard, is serving as a producer. Dove Men+Care is financing the project and MacLeod is excited about taking a “fun and funny” look at fatherhood today.

“My goal was to re-engineer [Dove Men+Care] and the marketing and growth strategy,” says MacLeod.

“The single biggest achievement I’ve had is championing and creating this purpose-led strategy.”