Arati Rao
Jul 03, 2012

Crafting brands for life, with a larger purpose

Marc Mathieu, senior vice president, marketing, Unilever, discussed the global FMCG behemoth’s ‘Crafting brands for life’ philosophy, ‘more magic, less logic’ belief, and more with Arati Rao. Edited excerpts.

Crafting brands for life, with a larger purpose

CI: What was the need to come up with the new branding philosophy, ‘Crafting brands for life’?

Marc Mathieu (MM): There have been some seismic shifts, with talks of capitalism being at the cross roads, and so on.

Fundamentally, there have been three big shifts that concern us. The first is the whole explosion of emerging economies. Then comes the whole concept of sustainable living and awareness and realisation about it. The third is the greatest enabler of change, the power of digital – digital not just as a solution but also as a platform for empowerment. We were working on those three shifts, and pondered what the influences of these three shifts on marketing would be. When marketing was invented, none of these three were present. These forced us to say that we needed a new philosophy for marketing.

Also, going back to our DNA, Unilever was one of the companies that participated in inventing marketing with the point of view of improving peoples’ lives – not just marketing for the sake of selling.

The idea of improving peoples’ lives, like we do on a brand like Lifebuoy, is a great philosophy approach to marketing. And the company has always believed in the power of brands. Very early on, in the history of the company, we had brands like Sunlight and Lifebuoy.

And then, the power of craftsmanship: marketing is a science, but it is also a craft. You need to put in as much attention to the rigour and precision as a craftsman manufacturing a guitar or violin – he is passionate about the craft he is doing, but also about the music that he will enable at the end.

CI: Is the sense of purpose better established for the corporate brand Unilever, rather than for individual brands?

MM: No. When we speak of the brand part of ‘Crafting brands for life’, we spent a lot of time on what the brand idea is, and how it fits in a human context. If there is a product to buy, there is an idea to buy into – that’s one of our key philosophies.

Each of our brands needs to be rooted in a product truth, but at the same time, it has to have a purposeful positioning - an anchor that takes us back to what the point of view of the brand is. That’s what I love about a brand like Lifebuoy, and the concept of being the family doctor. It doesn’t talk about killing germs in a sickness scenario; it is not a scary, negative scenario. It speaks from an empowering stand point. Lifebuoy is not a billion Euro brand yet, but it is one of my favourite brands in the company. It is, to me, an embodiment of a lot of what we are saying about ‘Crafting brands for life’.

CI: Paul Polman has spoken of marketing lagging consumers. What will Unilever do on ground to change the perception of marketing, from ‘selling for the sake of selling’?

MM: All the anchoring of ‘Crafting brands for life’ is working for the corporate brand but also for the individual brands. As part of the Sustainable Living Plan, we are spending a lot of time on and infusing in our brand approaches the whole conversation about the ‘Five Levers of Change’.
We’ve said that there are five levers (to apply when looking to encourage new behaviours), which are probably consequential. We need to make it understood, easy, desirable, rewarding and we need to make it a habit. To make it desirable and to make it rewarding, to me, are critical to infuse in each of our brands.

It’s like drinking and driving. People say it is understood that you shouldn’t drink (alcohol). The alternative is to have a soft drink or juice or tea or whatever else. But it wasn’t desirable, so people went to a party and drank alcohol. People said ‘You could die’ and it wasn’t too motivational. But when they moved to ‘You could kill your friends’, then it became desirable. The idea that ‘I could kill my friends’ is unsustainable for a teenager. And you make it rewarding, because instead of being a ‘loser’ at a party, you make the person the saviour. You take care of everyone and let them enjoy.

We will make sure that we think about insights on each of our brands so that we can drive growth, with the pillars of sustainable living in mind. 

The journey is a long term one, and one of co-creation and co-ownership with our marketers and agency partners. The vision is ‘Crafting brands for life’, and we are thinking through what it means for leadership, for talent, processes and frame works; and what it means in terms of culture. We’re working all this into the evolution of the Unilever way of marketing.

CI: Many of Unilever’s agencies have been on board for a long time. How tough a task has it been to get them aligned to the philosophy?

MM: Our agency-client relationship is what it is because we’ve been working together for years.
It’s been personally very satisfying that from the word ‘go’, we said we want to do this with our agencies. They have been with us from the start of this journey. They have then gone on to getting their troops aligned on what it means for them. We have had several meetings with some of our key agencies that involved people coming in from different markets.

CI: Is there a view that some of the ‘magic’ (as in more magic, less logic) will be lost with purpose being the core of every brand?

MM: I don’t think so. If you look at one of the most iconic brands we have in our portfolio that has truly embraced this ambition of purpose, it  is probably Dove. It’s fundamentally saying it’s a great skin care product, for real women who seek real beauty. You have a brand point of view, but then you also have a purposeful platform which is ‘self esteem’. And we know how well that ‘magic’ has worked.

Think about Surf, and ‘Dirt is good’. The category (detergents) is possibly even more difficult than skin cleansing to embrace a purposeful positioning in.

The idea is to put magic in the context of bigger purpose.

There is a balance between magic and logic – we also need to tell people that we need to think with our head, and also with our heart.

CI: Will we see a lot more localisation, when it comes to connecting with a larger purpose in different markets? Or in cases like Axe, where adaptation of global creative is the norm, will we see more localisation going forward?

MM: If I heard right, I think Axe work has won a Grand Prix (at Cannes 2012) for ‘Even Angels Will Fall’. To me, it won because it was a great idea that lent itself to local magic. I remember Turkey, Thailand, Argentina (or Brazil).... each place had its local interpretation and execution of the same global idea. We really let marketers create what resonated most locally. It is also based on different habits. In one market, we applied a whole solution which was cinema activation, in a market where there was a big cinema culture. Another was for the Latin culture (where people live in the street), where we did outdoor activation. In London, where people commute a lot, it was a train station activation.

We want to really tap the local realities, to tap into a platform that can be co-developed and co-owned by the local market.

CI: Will the platform lead to more experimental communication as well? 

MM: When you think about magic tricks, it’s very rare that you do them right the first time. You need to do it two or three times before you can become convincing at it. And when you try a magic trick, you don’t try it for the first time before a large audience – you try it before a friend or two to get it right. I think that should be the approach to experimentation.

CI: Unilever has always been known for its research and consumer insights. What will change on that front with ‘More magic, less logic’ philosophy?

MM: We are using the opportunity of ‘Crafting brands for life’ to re-emphasise that research is used to inform our judgement, not to replace it.

Under the pressure of delivery, it’s easy to use research as a proxy for decision making. That’s not the way it is intended to be.

Qualitative, quantitative, pre or post, research is there to help us improve. We as marketers, as human beings, are the ones making the decisions.

One of the topics of discussion globally for us has been qualitative research, which is critical not just for us but for the industry. And it comes down to one thing – which is the quality of the qualitative research.

CI: What are the results you would want to see, five years down the line?

MM: It’s hard to say specifically. But I’d like to see marketing turn noble again. At its inception, if you go back to the Henry Ford or William Lever, marketing is what helped us believe in the possibilities of a better future. Ford made us believe that a car was not just for the happy few.
At the cross roads we are at today, I really believe that brand marketing has the ability to lead again, and bring us into a world where we can continue to drive brands, improve products, and increase consumption.  We must think about giving access to the nine billion, not just to the elite. That’s where the growth opportunities are really exciting, especially if you look at markets like India. We have the opportunity to be an enabler in the shifts taking place in the pyramid, with products as simple as bars of soap.


Stills from the Axe Excite 'Even Angles Will Fall' campaign that won a Grand Prix in Creative Effectivness Lions at Cannes Lions 2012
Lifebuoy's 'Superfast' Hand Wash campaign won the Global Effie award (Bronze) in May 2012
The Dove 'Evolution' film that won a grand prix in Film Lions 2007
Campaign India

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