A marketing revolution is under way and nowhere is that more visible than in the CMO’s transforming role. Unilever CMO Keith Weed embodies this new order as an architect and leader of the firm’s plan to double revenue while halving its environmental impact. In this edited interview, Weed describes a new breed of marketing organization, and the CMO’s increasingly strategic role.
You have a very unusual job description for a CMO – you oversee marketing and communications and sustainable business. What’s the rationale for that?
The construct came from our CEO Paul Polman. When Paul arrived at Unilever in 2009, I was running the global laundry and home care business and also the water business around the world. And one of the big drives there for me was to find more sustainable solutions, particularly to clothes washing. It’s the greatest use of domestic water and we have a big business in emerging markets where people have to work hard to fetch water or pay a lot for it. So, I was already quite focused on sustainability issues.
When Paul arrived at Unilever he immediately started creating a new vision and business model with both growth and sustainability at its core. The rationale for combining marketing and sustainability is, to grow our business we need to do great marketing. Sustainable growth is consumer-demand led growth, and that’s the day job of marketers. But in a resource-constrained world, that definition of sustainable growth is too narrow. Yes, growth needs to be sustainable economically, but it must be sustainable environmentally and socially as well. Paul said let’s put these roles together, and your job is to figure out how to deliver on the vision and model.
How did you do this?
I set off to do two things initially: First, develop a plan that would define the strategy for doubling our business while increasing our positive social impact and reducing our environmental footprint. This ultimately became known as the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. Second, I developed a new marketing strategy called Crafting Brands for Life. This included, for example, refreshing our brand positioning statement – not something a consumer goods business does lightly. This requires each brand to define its social purpose and articulate what the brand does to support the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.
Seems like there would be a lot of tension in the combined roles.
Well, the real tension you have in companies is when marketing is in one silo, identifying what consumers need and driving demand, while sustainability is in another trying to reduce environmental impact, while Corporate Social Responsibility is in another working on the company’s social contribution while communications is telling its own, possibly different, story. In a connected world, this kind of internal disconnection is a hindrance not a help. One of the first things I did was to move away from the old-style CSR mentality by effectively closing down the CSR department. Instead, we wanted CSR to be an integral part of our business, embedded in everything we do, and so activities formerly isolated within CSR became strategic initiatives directed toward nutrition, water, hygiene, health and self-esteem. Also, before the consolidation, Unilever.com was led by the communications team while the Unilever brand was led by the CMO. You can’t have two different groups of people pulling a brand in two different directions. I now oversee global marketing, internal and external communications, external affairs, and the Unilever Foundation, but I also have the Chief Sustainability Office and sustainable business development reporting into me as well. This means I can drive clarity and alignment of message for Unilever, for what we’re doing in sustainability both internally and externally. Internally my message is very much one of join up and join in, so we can all work together as one team to deliver the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan and our purpose: to make sustainable living commonplace.
Marketers’ central job is to increase demand. Isn’t this at odds with the goal of reducing environmental impact?
Don’t get me wrong! We very much want consumers to buy and use our products. We just want to make sure our products are a better, more sustainable alternative to what they would use otherwise. That means innovating products to reduce their impact and changing consumer behavior about how to use products. Some people argue that in the future everyone will just consume less. I see no evidence for that in consumer behavior. The two billion people estimated to arrive on the planet by 2050 won’t say “we arrived late on the planet so we’ll accept a different lifestyle.” They’ll want your lifestyle, my lifestyle.
I don’t want anyone to think that focusing on sustainability means that we’re not building great brands, and there isn’t a huge emphasis on excellent marketing and growing our business. Quite the opposite. We’re growing ahead of our markets. We’re growing ahead of our competitors. This is very much a growth strategy.
What is marketing’s role in driving the firm’s social and environmental sustainability impact?
In a consumer goods business, marketing has a leading role in identifying future business direction. One of the pillars of our overall marketing strategy, Crafting Brands for Life, is ’putting people first’. That means thinking about people as people, as individuals, not as consumers — not as a head of hair looking for hair benefits, or a pair of armpits in search of deodorant, but instead understanding people’s lives and deeper needs.
This company was started on this thought. Back in the late 1800s, one of our founders William Lever was looking at the slums in London which were every bit as bad as the slums in Mumbai or the favelas of Sao Paulo today. He had a mission statement back then – making cleanliness commonplace. He believed that the humble bar of soap could have a major social impact by being a force for good and, by the way, build a massive business at the same time. He launched Lifebuoy, the world’s first disinfectant soap. And Lifebuoy the brand is in developing economies in Asia and Africa today teaching people how to hand wash – reducing infectious disease and simultaneously building the business. We’ve taught more than 300 million people how to wash their hands properly.
On the environmental sustainability side, an example is our Comfort fabric softener. In much of the developing world, people have to walk long distances and pay a lot of money for water, so there’s a premium on conserving water. We developed Comfort One Rinse which requires much less water to rinse, with the goal of reducing a typical wash from four buckets of water to two. Interestingly, when we tried marketing it by emphasizing the sustainability angle, people weren’t so interested. But when we emphasized that it reduced the work of fetching water and rinsing, and saved money, interest increased.
So the role of marketing as I see it is identifying those deeper human needs and providing solutions. Done right, that can address social, environmental, and business-growth goals all at once.
What advice do you have for other firms about combining marketing and sustainability?
Ultimately the decision to go this way needs to be based on what you’re trying to do as a company. You have to have a point of view. What’s your strategy? For us, this started with asking the question: what are the forces that are going to impact the world, and impact Unilever as well. We identified four: the digital revolution, sustainability in a resource-constrained world, the global shift to the east and south in growth and economic opportunity for companies like Unilever, and changing lifestyles, for example the population shift from rural areas into cities. So, those four big things led us to articulate what we had to do. I would argue that these forces will be important for most companies. In a joined-up, social, digital world, I don’t think you can separate communications from marketing. If you do, you’re talking out of two sides of your mouth as a company. You need to communicate a single, consistent view. And in a resource-constrained world, I don’t think you can have separate marketing and sustainability strategies, one about creating demand and an unrelated one about reducing the negative impacts of demand. A CSR project is not going to balance out some of the negative impact of your business.
So, if you really want to grow the company, and do so sustainably, you need to put marketing and sustainability under one leader, and enable that person to identify the levers that can help solve the management challenge. We don’t have all the answers. We’re learning as we go along. But for our company, and I think it’s safe to say for most if not all companies, sustainability isn’t a choice. People often say to me – what is the business case for sustainability? And I always answer, “I’d love to see the business case for the alternative.”