Sometimes in a crisis, it’s easy to back away from your purpose. A crisis can unite us, but it can also – sometimes simultaneously – divide us. Purpose can be a luxury that’s easy to stick to in the good and flush times but also easy to deprioritize when the going gets rough. For more than 100 years, Unilever has been a company with not one, but many purposes working together at the corporate and also brand level. But how does that history translate to the insane today and uncertain tomorrow and what lessons can other brands learn from its experience? What the Future talked to Unilever’s Aline Santos, who is EVP global marketing and Chief Diversity and Inclusion officer. When she thinks What the Future she’s thinking about how to focus the brands in ways that are both true to their existing purpose and also help their customers understand how their individual purchases impact the world around them.
What the Future: Is it fair to say that if you’ve already articulated a purpose like you’re saying, is it easier and more authentic to apply it to different situations like the crisis we’re in?
Santos: This is a moment in which many businesses recognize the need to step up and help resolve this crisis. Unilever has spent over 100 years as a purposeful business, and in a crisis like this our commitment to society is even more imperative. We believe it’s really important to back up what we say about our values and purpose with tangible action. Because we have been helping tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges for a long time now, we have knowledge and expertise in behavioral change, positioning us well to make a difference at this time.
WTF: In a crisis like this we kind of all suddenly have the same purpose. It’s all about getting through this and getting to the other side and keeping people healthy. How do you differentiate your messaging?
Santos: Many of our brands can make a direct contribution to the relief effort during this time of crisis. The work they are now doing is consistent with much of what we’ve been doing for a very long time. With Lifebuoy, which is an antibacterial soap brand, we have been training kids how to wash their hands for many, many years now. More than 400 million kids have been trained by Lifebuoy. The Lifebuoy brand is now putting out public service announcements explaining the importance of handwashing with soap, even mentioning our competitor brands. Unilever recently announced a contribution of more than €100m to continue helping people affected by the pandemic around the world, which includes the donation of soaps.
We know that our consumers love our brands. But now is not the time for us to try to differentiate, nor is it the time for us to try to be better than anyone else. If you truly care about your consumers, you should tell them what is right to do, which is to wash their hands, stay at home and disinfect. Brands that are trying to profiteer are going to be very visible to consumers.
WTF: Are brands able to shift their purpose a little more or is it more they need to just kind of re-articulate how their purpose fits into this crisis?
Santos: While our brands are not going to walk away from their purposes, we are altering some of the messaging to support the greater good. For example, our Persil brand’s purpose is focused on child development. In previous years, this has meant encouraging families to enjoy the great outdoors with our “Dirt is Good” campaign. Now, however, in-line with this same purpose, it’s important that families stay inside, so we have adjusted our messaging to instead thank our customers for staying at home. There are many ways brands out there can make a real difference at this time and each needs to figure out the most effective way to do so.