Unilever keeps doing good

The company celebrates 90 years of fearless leadership and a culture of creativity.

Every U Does Good2
This story originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of strategy.

By Will Novosedlik

“The truest and highest form of enlightened self-interest requires that we pay the fullest regard to the interest and welfare of those around us, whose wellbeing we must bind up with our own and with whom we must share our prosperity.” – William Hesketh Lever, 1900

It’s tempting to read William Lever’s quote and imagine that Unilever has always been purpose-driven. But while purpose may be in the company’s DNA, it wasn’t always conscious of it.

In 2009, when the CPG company’s former CEO began his job, he spent the first three months visiting Unilever businesses around the world. As the company’s previous global VP Sharon Macleod tells it, “He would spend the whole day just talking to people at their desks or on the shop floor, getting to know the culture. And at the end he said, ‘This company is different. They make decisions based on what’s the right thing to do for people and for the environment but they don’t realize they are doing it.’ And that’s when he crafted the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.”

Launched in 2010, the USLP is an initiative to achieve sustainable growth through purpose-led brands that help to build trust. Gary Wade, president of Unilever Canada, describes the USLP as having three pillars. “One is improving the livelihood of a billion people; under that we talk about hygiene, health and nutrition. The second is about cutting our environmental impact in half. That’s what many people hear more about. The third is fairness to workers in the workplace, especially women.”

Dove_COVID 3And the company has not let its plan gather dust, especially during a time of crisis. In late March, Unilever joined other CPG companies in shielding its workforce from the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. It promised to continue paying its employees for up to three months as the world rides out the storm.

Beyond worker relief, Unilever has also donated millions to health orgs and agencies to create things like soap and bleach to fight the virus. After all, the company has a history in germ battling. Its Sunlight soap was originally developed by the Lever Brothers in the late 19th century as a way to introduce hygiene to the British working classes, many of whom had moved from the countryside in the thousands, taking up residence in industrializing cities and towns where their living conditions were squalid, cramped and disease-prone.

Over the years, Unilever has built brands that support its mission to increase its social impact and halve its environmental footprint. The company’s top 10 selling brands – such as Dove, Knorr, Lipton and Hellmann’s – are what it calls “Sustainable Living Brands,” those which have products that contribute to its goals.

To communicate its progress, in 2019, Unilever launched the “Every Day U Does Good” marketing platform, which highlights the impact its brands have on different issues. Knorr, for example, helps farmers develop sustainable farming practices. Dove challenges the stereotypes about what beauty really means with its Self Esteem Fund. And Hellmann’s is now using 100% post-consumer recycled plastic for its packaging.

While all of Unilever’s brands are on a journey towards sustainability, its 28 Sustainable Living Brands are furthest ahead, growing 69% faster than the rest of the portfolio. “The rough math is that our brands with purpose are growing at 5%,” says Wade. “And I would say that in Canada, the growth rate on these brands is even higher.”

Demanding Greatness

The sense of purpose at Unilever is fueled by a strong creative culture. There are few clients who are spoken of so highly by agency people, and that is due to a long line of marketing executives inspired by a bold, charismatic figure named Peter Elwood.

F5F6D691-2B16-4AE9-8772-5A15C975A220_1_105_cThe former president tells strategy that when he joined Unilever (Lever Brothers at the time) in 1988 as VP marketing, his boss gave him one job: “Build market share… not to worry about profits, just grow the business,” he says. “It helped that my boss was Philip Darnton, who had transferred from Lever Brothers in the U.K. to be president in Canada. He was appalled at our mundane advertising and challenged me and our agencies to do better.”

As a result, Elwood recalls collaborating more with its agencies and insisting that he sit in on creative briefings and presentations from start to finish. “My presence showed that I was serious about being more adventurous in accepting off the wall ideas in our creative product. Slowly but surely we started to put more interesting and entertaining advertising in print, on air and the radio… Word spread among agencies that we were doing stuff that creatives liked, so the top talent wanted to work on our business.”

Nancy Vonk was one of those creatives. She worked on Unilever as a CD at Ogilvy alongside Janet Kestin in the early ‘90s, and says Elwood (who retired after Kevin Boyce took over in 2003) “was a gamechanger who broke the mold and put Unilever Canada on the global marketing map. And he was willing to do what was right for Canada even if it was out of sync with global.”

An early example of that is the now-famous Dove “Litmus Test” campaign of 1991. In the brief, Elwood explained to Vonk and Kestin that Dove was not just an everyday soap. With its gentle cleansing formula developed during WWII to clean the skin of burn victims, Dove doesn’t strip away all oils from the skin. As part of the team briefing, Elwood told them that if you put a piece of litmus paper on a wet bar of soap it will turn blue, which is a sign of alkalinity shared by most harsh household cleaners. But on Dove’s product, the litmus wouldn’t turn colour, indicating it was Ph-neutral and free of alkaline. Every bar of soap Vonk and Kestin tested themselves turned litmus paper blue. They could literally see why Dove was the mildest bar on the market, and they wanted consumers to have the same opportunity, hence the “Litmus Test” campaign.

Up until that point, the standard formula for Dove ads was “It’s ¼ moisturizing cream.” Decades of testimonials featured women praising how much their husbands liked their skin after using it. Elwood, Vonk and Kestin decided to give women objective proof of the bar’s differentiating mildness. Unilever’s head office in New York was not pleased that Elwood and his team had departed from the 45-year tradition of saying “It’s ¼ moisturizing cream.” David Ogilvy himself wrote a letter to his Toronto agency saying “science won’t sell!” But Elwood was confident enough in his instincts about Canadian consumers to approve the idea without asking permission. Mike Welling, who was brand manager at the time, says “the concept had already been used to target dermatologists in the U.S. but it had never been used directly against consumers. So, in our eyes it was already approved.”

Despite their initial misgivings, head office was soon impressed by the campaign’s enormous success. Sales of Dove went through the roof while its main competitors declined. It was subsequently deployed in 33 countries, not to mention cleaning up at Cannes, Communication Arts and The One Show. According to Macleod, it is still being introduced to new markets today, 30 years later.

Dove Real Beauty1
Elwood’s boldness set the tone for the next generation of creative marketing leaders. People like Mike Welling (later a partner at Doug&Partners and now an independent strategic consultant); Rob Guenette (CEO at TAXI); Dave Chiavegato (partner at Grip); Geoff Craig (CMO at the Heart and Stroke Foundation); Mark Wakefield (SVP Marketing at Ferrero USA) and Macleod (now a corporate director for IGM Financial) were inspired by Elwood’s leadership and legacy to continually raise the creative bar on brands like Dove, Hellmann’s, Sunlight, Knorr and Q Tips.

Agency-side, this team of marketing stars was matched by a whole generation of award-winning creative leaders including Vonk and Kestin (now co-founders of consultancy Swim), Elspeth Lynn (CCO at Geometry), Judy John (CCO at Edelman), Chris Dacyshyn and Julie Markle (co-ECDs at Bleublancrouge), Neil McOstrich (partner at Cleansheet) and Mark Stoiber (independant consultant). It’s a veritable hall of legends.

One of the challenges for many of these creative teams was to keep up with the creativity of the client team.
Take briefs, for example. Vonk talks about a Dove brief in which she and Kestin were “blindfolded and driven to an undisclosed location which turned out to be a military barracks. The client team was dressed in army fatigues and the brief – all about taking out the enemy – was barked at us like a string of military commands.”

The key insight that drove campaigns to success and recognition was often embedded in the briefs themselves. The litmus paper is a great example. And when Hellmann’s was run by Geoff Craig, a Unilever veteran of 17 years, his key point was that the product was just three simple ingredients: eggs, vinegar and oil. Hence the origin of “Real Mayonnaise,” an inspiration for what is now known as the Real Food Movement, founded in 2007 to connect Canadian families to “real” food through initiatives like community gardens, grants to schools to replace processed food with fresh meal options, educational programs and a series of documentaries in partnership with CanWest.

Elwood also instilled a culture of courage and confidence. Rob Guenette held several marketing roles at Unilever from 1986 to 1999. He tells the story of a Q Tips creative presentation: “Ogilvy came in with three concepts. I asked, ‘If you only had one to show me, which would it be?’ So they showed me it and I said, “Ok let’s do it.’ I didn’t even want to see the other ones. And it won a ton of awards. That really crystallized for me the trust that we had with each other.”

“Peter would always say to his people, your agency is your partner,” says Vonk. “This was very unusual. It still is. The client team was taught to be ambitious, to listen, to be open-minded and to have fun. We had all kinds of people work on that account over the years and they all embraced the culture Peter fostered. Why wouldn’t you? The work was world-class, and they made doing it a joy.”

Creativity Meets Purpose

There are so many groundbreaking Unilever campaigns from the last 30 years that it would be impossible to talk about all of them here. But there is one brand in particular that exemplifies the unique collision of creativity and purpose that Unilever Canada has become known for globally: Dove.

Starting in 2004, the Dove “Campaign for Real Beauty” set out to redefine the way women looked at themselves. It changed the wider culture outside of advertising and commerce and reached people on an everyday level. The message was that real beauty need not be defined by the idealized .0001% of the population, which is typically presented in advertising and the media.

Dove Tick Box
Originally headed up by Silvia Lagnado, global SVP for Dove, from 2001 to 2005, the “Campaign for Real Beauty” engaged five Ogilvy offices from around the world to contribute different elements. The first piece of creative that came out of the London office was called “Tick Box.” It consisted of the image of a “real” woman (as opposed to an idealized one) next to two tick boxes that asked the viewer to choose between attributes like “Fit or Fab” or “Withered or Wonderful.” Canada was the only market willing to run it. Other markets hesitated.

“Having worked both in the U.S. and on global, I can tell you the degree of risk in those bigger markets is much higher than it is here,” explains Macleod. “What if you spent $10 million and it didn’t sell anything? Analysts would be talking about that. But in Canada we had the ability to run with things because it felt right.” Canada became the test bed for breaking the norms.

“We spent $1 million in one month on outdoor [for the ‘Tick Box’ campaign] and it was so successful that it was immediately picked up by the U.S.,” adds Macleod. She says it was immediately followed by the U.K.-produced “Firming” campaign – which “everybody refers to as the ‘real women in white underwear’ ads” – with a Canada-specific execution. “As that was happening, we very quickly realized that it was one thing to raise awareness but we needed to follow that up with action. People were literally sending in cards and letters asking, ‘How can I help?’ And we were like, ‘Help do what?’ People were begging for brand engagement.”

“That’s when Dove Self Esteem started,” says Macleod. “We realized it wasn’t enough to talk about it, we had to do something about it. We created workshops on self-esteem for girls but we needed to get bums in seats. So we engaged Vonk and Kestin, who worked with [ACD] Tim Piper and [CD] Mike Kirkland to make ‘Dove Evolution’ and put it on YouTube to see what would happen.”

“Evolution” landed at the top of the platform’s most watched list. It was not only the first viral video in the history of advertising – it was the first video to go viral at all. You could say it inspired the word “viral.”
“Real Beauty” and the “Evolution” spots went far beyond what advertising does in the world. It changed girls’ and women’s image of themselves. It inspired a surge in authentic casting in TV and film. It embraced diversity. It drove change around how dysfunctional the beauty category can be and reframed how important it is to be valued beyond just how you look. And it put Canada on the map as a marketing gamechanger.

Hellmans Real Food1
Creativity Gets Real

By 2007, Unilever had staked a legitimate claim to authenticity, a coveted brand attribute that’s difficult to achieve. Just as Dove elevated reality over fantasy, Hellmann’s drove the conversation around real food.
Chris Dacyshyn, formerly an AD at Ogilvy, remembers coming up with the idea of the Hellman’s Real Food Movement. Her first execution was to turn parking lots into communal gardens and gather stories from people who wanted a plot in the garden. People got to farm the gardens in cities across Canada. They had more people interested in plots than the brand could accommodate.

And at a school in Alberta, Unilever ripped out its deep fryer and replaced it with equipment to make real food. It also brought in celebrity chef Chuck Hughes to show them a whole new healthy way to eat. Ogilvy then filmed a monster truck crushing the deep fryer.

The results of the viral video were significant, with a 10% increase in sales in 2007, 9% in 2008 and 15% in 2009, all well above the pre-campaign growth of only 3%. “Unilever began to notice that there was more financial gain in doing good than there was in doing product ads,” says Dacyshyn. “If we can do some good and it can result in a strong product story that generates financial growth, why wouldn’t we?”

Dove Real Moms
Keeping it Real

Unilever’s purpose-led marketing continues to be seen in Dove Men+Care’s “#RealDads” and Baby Dove’s “#RealMoms.” The former does to stereotypes about fatherhood and masculinity what “Real Beauty” did for stereotypes of femininity. Likewise, #RealMoms started a conversation around the false depiction of ‘perfect’ moms often seen in the media and advertising.

With new Canadian federal legislation introducing a five-week paternity leave policy, Dove Men+Care recently introduced “#TakeTheTime,” urging dads to take leave and lend support to the campaign online.
As for Hellmann’s, it continues to do good through its Real Food Rescue. For instance, when it learned that Canadians waste enough food every minute to fill an MLSE stadium, Hellmann’s and Ogilvy rescued food that would have been thrown away from stadium suites.

Hearing these stories and what they meant to Unilever’s brands and their champions, one realizes what a massive impact they had. So many positive social and environmental outcomes, so much growth, so many awards. There’s no question Unilever Canada ushered in a golden age of marketing innovation, raising the bar for the rest of the world. And the company couldn’t have done that without discovering its authentic purpose. Long may its mission continue.