Business with a mission for Unilever’s Keith Weed

27 Feb,2013

By Ravi Balakrishnan


Keith Weed

Chances are that even the better travelled among us haven’t put in a stop at Gunga, a village in the Berasia taluka, near Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. It however figured in the itinerary of Keith Weed, chief marketing officer at Unilever on a recent trip to India. It’s a visit that has left Weed with a new appreciation for the resilience of the Indian consumers and the primacy of mobile phones in their lives.


He says, “In the village I visited, there were incredibly low income consumers – eight people living on less than a dollar a day. But they had a mobile. As we went to the backroom to look at the stove, they used the mobile as a torch to show me the way. We have always been talking about how TV is mass coverage. But as you know, in rural India there are media dark areas that are not mobile dark.”


Unilever’s new marketing strategy

Brands For Life is being rolled out across the world. The pilot happened in India before Christmas last year and its subsequently travelled to Brazil and South Africa.


The strategy stands on three pillars:

1. Put People First: Looking at people through the lens of their lives, needs and challenges and not just as Weed puts it “a sort of head for a bottle of shampoo.”


2. Building Brand Love: Making sure Unilever brands are not just about a product but an idea that people can buy into.


3. Unlock The Magic: Getting the balance right between magic and logic, the art and science of marketing.


However, a mobile phone doubling up as a torch is more footnote than main event in Weed’s visit. Among the principal reasons is a status check on one of his pet projects, launched with considerable fanfare at the Cannes Lions Festival in 2012. In a meeting a few hours before the launch at Cannes, Weed spoke excitedly of his intention to toss back a glass of water from Mumbai’s Powai lake on stage. The water would of course have been treated by one of Unilever’s Pureit purifiers. While those plans got scuppered, Waterworks, a collaboration between Unilever, non profit organisation PSI and Facebook, generated a fair amount of excitement on launch. It was seen as one of the first attempts by a large multinational to harness the power of social networking for societal good.


Waterworks is a Facebook timeline application that allows users to make a daily contribution towards communities in dire need of potable water. Their donations will enable PSI’s onground staff, the Waterworkers to educate the most deprived people in rural India about the importance of clean water and distribute Unilever’s Pureit units. The payoff for the people who choose to help? The satisfaction of doing good. And perhaps an equally important motivation in an increasingly narcissistic and self obsessed age – photos of the families they helped will be posted to their Facebook profiles.


Eight months down the line, Waterworks does not boast the impressive million plus numbers of other ‘brand’ pages on Facebook, with a modest 9,285 likes so far. Asked if this is as per his expectation, Mr Weed explains, “It’s still in beta testing. There are two ends we are working on. The Facebook engagement and making sure we deliver water into the hands of people who need it the most, in a cost effective way.”


He admits there are lessons to be learned before the project scales up and that even its promotion on Facebook has been kept deliberately low key. With the initial target of 15,000 met, the tweaks are specifically in the area of getting the units to the most needy. A contemplative Mr Weed says, “It was incredibly moving. You see people in rural India, struggling with some of the basic things. It makes me more determined to sort out a scalable model.” However, his visit also fills him with confidence. Of the 600 houses, 220 have Pureit units.


Mr Weed says, “Watching the Waterworker take a photo of the person who received the unit and uploading it on Facebook and to have that appear on the page of someone in Europe or the US: this is the future of the world. The use of mobile is going to transform our lives and marketing.” The Waterworks project ties in with one of Weed’s obsessions. Unilever has been working to a stated objective of doubling its business while halving its environmental footprint and increasing its social impact. The first of these Weed admits is a fairly basic ambition, one that’s probably shared by any good company. The second has a profound impact on marketing. Mr Weed says, “We could have put together a plan with targets we knew how to achieve. But I don’t think that would transform the business to the degree we are aspiring to.”


An early success has been sourcing 100% of palm oil sustainably. Significant considering Unilever purchases 3% of the world’s total palm oil. It was a target that the company arrived at eight years ahead of schedule; now the goal has shifted to 100% traceable sustainable palm oil by 2020. Similarly 60% of the tomatoes used by Kissan in India and all the tea bags in Europe are now sourced sustainably. Unilever hopes this will be the case with all tea bags by 2015 and loose tea by 2020. Weed considers these the low hanging fruit and acknowledges there’s lot more to do.


Given that these goals are likely to outlast the current management team, he is making sure it’s not tied down to “one manager in a seat at one time.” He says, “We have engaged across the breadth of our employee base. It’s virtually unstoppable and has ignited the imagination of our people.” In the first year, the plan was unveiled to 97,000 employees globally. And it’s part of the reason why Unilever is a draw for future recruits. Weed says enthusiastically, “For the generation that’s coming through, our declaration resonates in a different way than it does to anyone in this room. Let’s face it: my generation have stolen from the future of our children financially and environmentally. We now want to build a model where sustainability is not something that happens by chance but is built into the design.”


Of course a couple of things help Weed meet his objectives. The first being the massive scale of Unilever’s operations and the budgets that power the machine. Even in these recessionary times, its advertising and promotions budget have seen an upswing. Last year it spent 6.5 billion up from 6.1 billion for 2011. The other is that the number of Unilever’s consumers who care about the environment – the company claims to serve 2 billion people a day – is on the rise.


Individuals often feel overwhelmed and insignificant, considering the sheer scale of problems facing the world. But small actions from many people can make a change. Weed says, “One person drinking sustainably sourced tea makes no difference. But if you talk about a marketer who buys 15% of the world’s tea, we can have a profound impact on the planet. It certainly gets me out of bed in the morning.”


A less exalted but no less important part of Mr Weed’s job is to ensure the sales and marketing machinery at Unilever hums along smoothly. A commercial for Axe created last year ran unchanged in 100 different markets, the sort of phenomenon that global marketing heads dream of, saving the costs of originating fresh ad content. However, according to Mr Weed, deliberately engineering commercials like that is not a priority: “When it happens, it is fantastic and a very efficient benefit. But a bigger priority is large global brands. 14 of our global brands are already over a billion euros. I will be even happier when we have more!”


Interestingly enough, one of the pieces of communication he is happiest about is a new campaign for Axe that’s rolling out across the globe – India soon to be included. Built around Axe’s Apollo variant, is a TV commercial and more interesting a contest to put 22 people from across different countries in space. They will be chosen by a reality TV-esque competition that will play out online. “Leave a man, come back a hero,” Mr Weed says, “It’s got tremendous buzz around the world. We actually used Buzz himself to engage people,” referring to Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the second man on the moon. The big question is will they take the Geo-Cruiser? You know, the solar-powered flying machine used by the Captain’s Planeteers.


Source:The Economic Times

Copyright © 2013, Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved


Post a Comment 

Comments are closed.