The Brand Manager is dead….long live the Brand Activist

Why the future of brand management is activism

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At the heart of our strategy in Unilever Europe

My father was an activist, a real die-hard, socks-in-sandals, 1970s activist. One of my first memories is sitting on his shoulders at a 1973 Vietnam protest. As my Mom tells the story, my angelic blonde three-year-old self made quite the impact as she shouted ‘Nixon, Nixon – get your hands off Vietnam!’

In the 1980s, my Dad led the massive European anti-nuclear movement, galvanizing almost 500,000 citizens to demonstrate in Amsterdam and The Hague. Later, he fought for human rights in Eastern Europe.

I took a different route. My first job after college was in marketing, with consumer goods behemoth Procter & Gamble. My father would jokingly refer to it as ‘The Firm’, after the John Grisham thriller. And while he was proud of my burgeoning career, I’m sure his pride at times was mixed with a sense of bewilderment about how his daughter ended up selling Vicks VapoRub (yes, my first assignment) at this icon of American capitalism.

Enter the era of disruption

P&G was, in fact, a fabulous brand-building school. On our way to the much-revered ‘Brand Manager’ status, P&G’s advertising gurus instilled the importance of ‘distinctive benefits’ and product superiority in my peers and I. We moved from brand to brand, irrespective of personal conviction or usage. In fact, many of my male peers worked on Always, which always made for fun conversations at the bar (‘so, tell me a bit about what you do?’). Brand Management was a science that could be mastered. For many years, it all worked like a charm.

But then, of course, technology started spelling change for brands. Between e-Commerce and social media, it became easier for passionate entrepreneurs and start-ups to claim spaces that big brands had long left untouched. Amazon and Alibaba’s marketplaces offered instant mass distribution. Combined with savvy social media and digital marketing, new brands popped up to deliver on needs big companies had long considered ‘niche’. Organic? Check. Vegan? Check. Ethnic? Local? High protein? Check, check, and check…and those were just the main ones.

Why purpose comes first today

So, what are the big, established brand companies to do? Today, I’m Unilever’s President for Europe; and I believe that the days of ‘managing’ brands are well behind us. Washing shirts a little whiter or making hair a bit shinier is still important, but performance by itself is no longer enough. Today, brands need both performance and genuine purpose to thrive. And that means change for the people behind brands, too. Brand builders at Unilever need to take a stance, to create movements, to evangelize and even sacrifice. In short, we need brand activists.

Take Ben & Jerry’s, acquired by Unilever in 2000. Of course, the brand makes fantastic ice cream. Just try a pint of Chunky Monkey or Cherry Garcia – or if you feeling particularly peckish, the ‘Vermonster’, a 20-scoop bucket. Really. But the brand’s true magic is in its purpose of ‘peace, love and ice cream’. Peace and love are as alive today as when Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield opened their first parlour in a garage in Burlington in 1978.

Today’s brand team champions inclusion for refugees and LGBTs, and fights climate change. It sponsors Pride. It runs programs to help refugees integrate back into work. You simply can’t work on Ben & Jerry’s if you don’t believe in its purpose 100% and are ready to go to bat for it. The Ben & Jerry’s brand has grown sales by double digits for many consecutive years.

Ben & Jerry’s has become synonymous with purpose….delivered with a spark of humour!

Keeping it real

Or take Dove, another Unilever brand with a long track record of strong growth. Dove makes terrific deodorants, shower and skin care products. But what truly differentiates Dove and the people who work on the brand is their purpose: raising women’s self-esteem. Dove champions real beauty, doesn’t use digitally distorted images, and has quietly spent time educating more than 20 million girls around the world via programmes that help them develop a positive relationship with the way they look.

Dove’s ‘No digital distortion’ mark guarantees no manipulation to deliver false standards of beauty

So have we got it all figured out at Unilever in Europe? Of course not. Some of our brands are still too ‘vanilla’. We need to work harder on reducing the amount of plastic we use. We still have brand portfolio opportunities, despite exciting, purpose-led acquisitions like Pukka herbs and Grom natural ice cream. And sometimes, we run into heated public debates when others don’t agree with our points of view or feel we don’t live up to our own high standards. We welcome those discussions.

In fact, we’d like to invite everyone to be activists: our employees of course, but also our consumers, retail customers, citizens in the communities we operate in, shareholders and NGO partners. In short, you! Wherever you are, you can be an activist: through the products you choose to purchase, the stocks you choose to hold, and the discussions and partnerships you engage in.

Because in the end, we believe brand activism works. Building value through values can make the world a better place; and help companies thrive. Today, Unilever’s fastest growing brands are those with a clear purpose. They grew 47% faster than the rest of the portfolio and delivered 70% of company growth in 2017.

My father would be proud.

Are you an activist? Please tell us more…


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