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Unilever CEO Paul Polman On The Packaged Goods Giant's Creative Shift

For years, Unilever was a reliable presence on the ad awards circuit, its communications efforts always in the spotlight. But when you’re trying to encourage people in global markets to, say, wash their hands more, commercials aren’t always the best creative solution. CEO Paul Polman discusses the company’s focus on changing behavior via its "Five Levers for Change."

Unilever is considered by many to have one of the world’s most influential marketing operations. Initiatives like Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, Omo’s Dirt is Good (and even The Axe Effect) reflect creative strategies based on sophisticated global insights, executed regionally and locally.

Now though, like many in the marketing world, Unilever is focusing its strategy on changing consumer behavior. A year after the company unveiled its ambitious Sustainable Living Plan (which aims to cut the environmental impact of Unilever products in half while doubling the business’ size by 2020), it issued what it is calling the Five Levers for Change. The company sums up the Levers as: Make It Understood, Make It Easy, Make it Desirable, Make it Rewarding, Make It a Habit. But the upshot is that the Five Levers are intended to drive initiatives that inspire consumers to live more sustainably—while using Unilever products, naturally.

Unilever CEO Paul Polman, who took the helm in January 2009, is a man on a mission. His vision for the company is to create a sustainable engine for growth and jobs and much of his focus is on developing markets where 53% of Unilever’s sales currently take place, a number that is expected to rise to 70% in the not-too-distant future.

Fast Company spoke to Polman about Unilever’s shift in creative priorities and its emphasis on sustainability.

Fast Company: What role does creativity play in the Five Levers? What importance do you personally place on the role that creativity can play in changing behavior?

Paul Polman: Creativity is the key part of it. Often to unlock the consumer into driving a behavioral change, you have to involve them in a creative way. So for example hand washing—we found out that a lot of consumers in emerging markets have bar soap at home but don’t use it. And then you get infectious diseases. So we found a way to go into schools, educating the children. We found that the children go home and have a big influence on the parents to drive that habit change, so that is a creative way of driving habit change in emerging markets.

A different challenge is "one-rinsing." We’ve put products out in the market, fabric softeners, that only need one rinse. Many markets are used to using 3 or 4 buckets but what we found is when we put these new products in the market consumers were still doing 2 or 3 rinses, so we had to be very creative in educating them.

In developed markets you are trying to convince people to take shorter showers, how is that going?

The challenge of the shorter shower is a difficult one, because people say: "I enjoy it, I am willing to pay for it." So how can we create the triggers with the consumers? How do we create that habit change? We don’t have all the answers.

Have you got any answers for that one?

For showers we have created a Facebook page, we have created Suave advertising that is called "Turn Off the Tap." We are introducing dry shampoos. As a company we are trying to find solutions that work in a resource-scarce environment but also give people the confidence that they need. It’s very much a question of creativity.

How are you affected by the way consumer behavior is changing?

Consumers, for good or bad have discovered the power of connectivity. They are discovering that technology is power—that the ability to leverage technology provides opportunities that were not there before and they’re increasingly doing that. We sell to two billion people a day, and we are saying to these people: "Harness your power." One question many people have is if they do the right thing and no one else does, what difference does it make? What we’re saying is: "Become part of the movement, because there are two billion of you. So it does matter." We are a consumer goods company. We have to be in sync with the needs of society otherwise we won’t be there in future. And increasingly consumers are seeing, in the absence of others providing solutions, that they need to take charge.

But what about people in developing markets, they want "stuff " just like western populations have had, are you saying they can’t have it?

No, I am saying the opposite. I am saying when you provide for their needs to make their lives better, do it in a way that is sustainable. They want jobs, they want nutrition and hygiene, they want food security, they want sustainable sourcing.

They also want an iPhone.

It’s not up to us to say who can have an iPhone and who can’t. Of course they want an iPhone. Perhaps with an iPhone they can see what the prices of their crops are, so they don’t need the middleman. In fact phones in those markets may be a better improvement for livelihoods than they are here. We should give our phones to them! But that has nothing to do with sustainable consumption. What we’re trying to say is that – and certainly in emerging markets people get it very clearly: in India alone there are the equivalent of two Niles disappearing from the water table every year, people know what is happening—the fact is they are going to consume more, so why not consume sustainably?

Yes there are groups of people who are ready to amass a fortune in terms of things as they improve their quality of life. We cannot criticize them when we are sitting here in the comfort zone. What we need to do as companies is to ensure that whatever these people desire, we do that in a way that is sustainable.

The Five Levers are about using Unilever products more. Do you not feel that there is a general desire for corporations to deliver messaging about using less?

There has to be growth in the market. There are two billion more people coming and a lot of them are improving their standard of living —so the debate of ‘growth or no growth’ is not a good debate. Even in Europe, they are desperately looking for growth to get Europe out of the economic malaise. So the fact that you need to grow, that you need to create things, have employment, have more products come out of your factories, have more people work in your factories, employ more farmers – in fact, the world needs this.

We want to grow without taking from society and the environment. We want to grow whilst giving. So if you want to use our detergent, I don’t mind more people using our detergent because the footprint of our detergent is better than the alternative. We are not advocating people use less detergent, we are advocating a business model that gives to the environment and society instead of what happens all too often now, takes from it. That is why it is so powerful. We are not bashful about that. That is the whole essence of sustainable growth.

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