David Arkwright
Apr 02, 2014

Dirt is good: how storytelling gave Persil a boost

The former global brand director of Unilever’s laundry business says before creating a brand that has a true story to tell consumers, it must hold meaning for the team who stewarding it.

Dirt is good: how storytelling gave Persil a boost

Storytelling lives in the banal. It is the way in which human beings make sense of their everyday; the way we make the apparently ordinary significant, imbuing daily routine and happenings with meaning that lives beyond the moment.

Great brands are no different. They create connection and meaning that allows them to transcend their often menial use and go beyond what they do to relate to who we are. They create a narrative that weaves into our greater lives and forges a deeper attachment for the user.

But none of this is by accident. It is the skill of the great marketer to devise these brand stories by means of his or her own ability. Think Nike, generating a near-myth about people's ability to accomplish regardless of gender, race or athletic prowess - the "Just do it" story. From sneakers to desirable must-haves, consistently over three decades, due to the power of the story.

Other great brands have done the same. Apple took the hitherto banal world of what was known as "information technology" and, by means of an altogether more compelling story, created an ever-expanding category that has meaning in all of our lives, from iPods and iPhones to iPads and beyond.

What produces this meaning is the story - one largely told and embodied by the late Steve Jobs himself. It brings new meaning to what computing really can be. A story in which Apple becomes the champion of a world of freedom-enhancing technology, as opposed to the promise of tedium and enslavement that computers stood for prior to the great Apple story of the 20th century. This idea became filmic reality in the "1984 won't be like 1984" ad - the ultimate expression of computers' ability to smash the very totalitarianism for which they had, until that point, stood, adopting George Orwell's tale as the medium for new storytelling within the category.

Weaving a significant narrative

Persil/Omo's "Dirt is good", arguably one of the more notable modern-day brand stories, does the same. It weaves a new narrative of real significance into a category that traditionally would boast about the size of its molecules or the severity of stains it could remove. Now, the narrative is that dirt equates to creativity; and parents aspire to have creative, free-thinking and playing kids, as opposed to those locked into pristine-clean conformity. By establishing this story - one of true human significance that is applicable the world over - it propagates meaning, connection and, ultimately, commercial success. It is among Unilever's biggest brands, exceeding $3bn globally.

Having been at the heart of this piece of brand thinking, it is worth reflecting on the role of storytelling in the conception of the "Dirt is good" idea. A story that would genuinely shift not just the way consumers across every continent related to their laundry, but, just as importantly, the way the brand team internally saw the challenge.

To come up with a story that can permeate the ranks and regions of an organisation as much as it can connect with consumers the world over, we first need to find a way of relating it to ourselves. Before we can create a brand that has a true story to tell consumers, it must hold meaning for the team who will steward and build it.

Only connect

So how do great brand stories emerge?

The "Dirt is good" story started with a degree of soul-searching within the team, to understand the ideology of the Persil/Omo brand across its history and how this related to the team's own beliefs. We found that the brand, in its many guises across the world, was obscuring what had been a very strong agenda of humanity and connection. This was a brand that, across the eras, had connected with the human side of consumers and their relationship with laundry. It may not have been elevated to any great discourse on the notions of freedom or accomplishment, but it was notable nonetheless. This formed a connection within the team, who, in turn, expressed an ambition to be more connecting and meaningful in the world in which their brand existed. This founding ideology - being humanist and connected - formed the backbone of the "Dirt is good" story.

The critical next step was the link to the broader lives of consumers globally. By moving beyond the confines of the washbowl we started to glimpse a world in which our team ideology would relate in ever-more pertinent ways to the consumers our brand sought to serve.

Investigating importance

We spoke one-on-one with consumers the world over, using stimulus that would begin to make connections from their world of banality to greater heights of meaning. By imposing the discipline of asking "Why is that important?" we could touch the very nerves of true emotion, and tap into the way that this bigger emotion could link back to the laundry category. We began to find that there was indeed a deep connection available, via the deep insight that "If you are not free to get dirty, you cannot experience life and grow".

Having located the area within which our story would unfold - where a parent's desire for a creatively unconstrained child relates to everyday dirtiness or cleanliness - we went on to specify the point of resolution the brand would bring. Great brands and brand stories play to a deep desire or resolve a deep tension.

We located this tension as the counterpointing of disciplinarian parenting versus the universal aspiration for a more libertarian parenting style in the spirit of transgenerational progress. Everyone seeks to feel they are somehow more progressive than the preceding generation. We had found our great point of resolution. The story would start to unfold.

We now sought arenas in which our brand could allow its idea to be experienced by means of brand ritual. We needed to allow consumers to be able to participate in the story, as opposed to merely having it read out to them by means of didactic, one-way TV communication. We identified painting as the first experience platform for the "Dirt is good" ritual and instigated painting competitions from Pakistan to Brazil. Consumers came in droves to experience the idea and prove their own relationship to it founded on such insight into real lives. Later, our story moved to new areas of brand ritual - most notably sport. The indelible connection between playing sport and getting dirty was formed.

Turning to innovation

We then looked to use the "Dirt is good" story to conceive of innovation the brand could bring to the category. This continued to stoke the essential fire within the story, but in a way that was part of the "Dirt is good" brand.

This approach identified new chapters in the Persil/Omo brand story - subplots that would weave the narrative ever-more tightly through the organisation and the consumer world. "Pockets full of promise" proved to be the way to speak about what, hitherto, would have been yet another banal enzyme in search of some monster stain.

Instead, we spoke of children's pockets as the theatre of their experience and repository of all their finds. As such, pockets would get dirty in the service of this freedom and creativity.

Within a relatively short time we had begun to develop a story we would tell, and which would be told time and time again. Wherever we were to travel, the essential narrative of "Dirt is good" would connect. The plot and characters would elaborate and grow, but the essential story would remain the same.

A story that would shift the banal to the truly meaningful, which lives forever.

The author is a founding partner of global brand-development agency MEAT and the former global brand director for Unilever's laundry business. He is the author of ‘The Making of Dirt is Good’.

The article first appeared on Marketingmagazine.co.uk

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