Unilever’s Sharon MacLeod on winning in ’09

Unilever's Sharon MacLeod says the ultimate marketing challenge this year is an internal one

This year is supposed to be like a bad math class: long and hard. The financial gurus all seem to think that the consumer is going to continue to retreat. The good news is that these are the same gurus who failed to predict the commodity price yo-yo in ’08. They are distant cousins to the (formerly) highly paid financial whiz kids who created the no income/no job loans that have decimated the U.S. home market.

You may not know any of these fine people personally but you will be skiing in their wake in ’09. It is the year of corporate retreat. No, not the kind involving a luxury resort. The ‘freeze hiring and cut the travel and advertising budgets’ sort of retreat that veterans of the late ’80s will remember fondly.

But 2010 will get here eventually and even though the corporate execs might be focused on mere survival, it might be worth a moment or two to think about winning in ’09. If that sounds a little idealistic, consider the fact that some very bright people are going to have to turn this year into a winning season. The class of ’08 are some of those people.

Last fall I had a chance to lecture a couple of graduating classes at Colorado State University. After what I hoped was a stimulating presentation about marketing Dove, including some encouraging remarks about how fast the marketing world was changing, I opened the floor to questions.

Not surprisingly, most of the questions were about jobs, as in how to get one. Regrettably, these young people are also facing all the gloom and doom about the economy. Will there be a job for me? How can I get started in these tough times?

The questions were, of course, mixed with a good deal of complaint: ‘This isn’t fair, you didn’t have to face a recession when you graduated.’ Perhaps like most of us, they were missing the obvious. Every change creates opportunity, and marketing is changing. My presentation to them included the story about Dove ‘Evolution’ and the Body & Soul live theatrical production and documentary. New ideas and new mediums.

Those young people represent the first wave of native digital marketers. They have grown up in a digital world and they know inherently what works and what’s possible. Digital is where it’s at.

Those of us who have cut our teeth in the 30-second ad world are swimming up the digital stream that young people navigate with ease. Our attempts at reaching people with new messages on a new medium are baby steps in what is about to be an avalanche of new ideas.

No one has cracked the DNA on how to do digital right (except Obama). We struggle with how to measure the attempts at reaching people with emerging ways of marketing. We put forth valiant efforts at making an idea viral.

Those young grads are several light years ahead of us geezers in the digital age. They grew up as the IT expert in their family home. They just know. So I encouraged them to jump into the digital game. To use their strengths and their fine education to jump-start a career with a generational advantage.

The most important message is an old one: every moment you spend in complaint is a moment that could be spent winning.

It takes a lot of creative energy, and no small amount of courage, to turn a recession into an advantage. The posting of ‘Evolution’ on YouTube was brilliant but the catalyst was a lack of funds. We didn’t have the media support to distribute the film any other way.

Marketers are going to have to be more effective with fewer resources in ’09. Get used to it.

The second message is also old: you are either growing or busy dying.

Watering down old ideas in an attempt to wait out the recession is not a winning strategy. It’s going to take more creativity than simply running old creative.

The bottom line to winning in ’09 is convincing people that winning is possible – that now is the perfect time to try new ideas. That may be the ultimate marketing challenge.

Sharon MacLeod is the marketing director for Dove and skin care at Unilever Canada. She’s also a lifelong student of human behaviour and passionate about consumers and motivating teams – her greatest pride being Dove’s ‘Campaign for Real Beauty.’