The Drum Awards for Marketing APAC

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Marketing Brand Purpose Brand Strategy

How creative brand marketing allowed Unilever’s Lifebuoy to adapt to challenges


By Charlotte McEleny | Asia Editor

August 5, 2021 | 15 min read

While every brand in the world has been impacted by the pandemic, few brands have managed to positively embed themselves into the story of the past year and a half like Unilever’s Lifebuoy.

The Drum spoke to Kartik Chandrasekhar, global brand vice-president of Lifebuoy at Unilever, to understand what is really involved in scaling up such a huge campaign under the challenges of a pandemic.

The answer is creative brand marketing that took an unconventional route to reach the biggest audience possible.

It was a momentous year for Lifebuoy in 2020 and continues to be in 2021. Being one of the brands truly at the center of this pandemic, can you give us a sense of what that has been like as a marketer?

2020 marked the beginning of an unprecedented human and health crisis that continues to impact our lives well into 2021. The Covid-19 pandemic is bad for all of us, as individuals, as a society and as a global economy. And while it has been the most challenging period in our professional lives as marketers, it’s also been heartening to know that Lifebuoy was born to serve during times like these.

Lifebuoy has over 125 years of research and heritage in personal health and hygiene. Our purpose is grounded in our responsibility to educate people around the world on the importance of handwashing to help stay hygienic and healthy. We have reached 1 billion people with improved handwashing behaviors already. This purpose is rooted in our DNA: from responding to the spread of cholera in Victorian England in 1893 to helping people stay protected from diseases during the ongoing pandemic.

We’ve done so through powerful, responsible and authentic communication, providing access to hygiene products and helping people practice the right hygiene behaviors. My mantra is simple – our role as leaders of this historic and purpose-led brand is to serve our consumers with the best protection from illness we can give. We have done that for over a century, and 2020 really saw us step up.

Within 12 hours of the news of the outbreak of the pandemic, Lifebuoy launched a public service announcement (PSA) encouraging people to use any soap, even that of our competitors, to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. This was live across our biggest markets in record-breaking time.

Further to this and to meet the growing demand for hand hygiene products, Lifebuoy expanded into over 50 markets in less than 100 days, while donating over 20m products, including soap, hand sanitizers and antibacterial wipes, to various organizations and initiatives, including schools, hospitals, the elderly and taxi drivers across Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa.

It’s truly been one of the toughest but also proudest periods of my life as a marketer. To see Lifebuoy, and our entire team spread across the world, go above and beyond to drive the purpose of this brand helping improve hand hygiene behaviors worldwide in this time of need not only humbles me, but it also gives me the energy to continue doing more.

Can you tell us more about Lifebuoy’s new Public Service Announcement that you launched recently?

The emergence of new Covid-19 variants has led to waves of infections rising and falling at different times in different parts of the globe. It is certain that the vaccine rollout, and our gradual unlocking back to normal life, will be equally uneven.

However, there is one constant: WHO and health experts universally agree that the pathway out of the pandemic will depend on vaccinations going hand in hand with maintaining effective hygiene habits, as well as other preventative measures.

Lifebuoy’s new ‘It’s in Your Hands’ public health appeal echoes this sentiment. Reflecting the brand’s initial PSA at the height of the first wave of the pandemic last year encouraging people to use any soap and not just Lifebuoy, our latest campaign is an appeal directly from the frontlines: doctors, nurses and social workers, through a symbolic gesture of folded hands, plead to everyone to play their part to by wearing a mask, socially distancing, getting vaccinated (where available) and practicing good hand hygiene.

We’ve now launched this PSA in almost 20 countries and in over 30 languages, reaching over 60% of all households across our biggest markets with this powerful message.

Did this mean that in the past year and ahead, you have had to create more marketing and creative work?

What makes this Public Service Announcement so unique besides the fact that we encourage the use of any soap, once again even that of our competitors, is the fact that for the first time a hygiene brand is going beyond encouraging simple hygiene habits to talk about the other critical public health measures to stay protected. This is not conventional, but we are very clear about Lifebuoy’s purpose – it’s never been more relevant than during this public health crisis and thus felt like this is the right thing to do for the brand and for the people we serve.

In addition to the uniqueness of the message, how we’ve delivered it also really stood out. At the start of the pandemic, we knew through our years of experience on hand hygiene behavior change that delivering handwashing information can be mundane. So, to drive more impact, we worked to make the messages and content memorable and fun through dance and music, such as the #DoTheLifebuoy campaign, which was led by sports celebrities and influencers. We created customized pop music tracks and fun dance steps that teach proper handwashing steps, which were fronted by 300 social media influencers in over 13 countries. This ensured that handwashing remained top of mind. The efforts achieved 60bn impressions on TikTok.

Our most recent PSA has enlisted the support of Unilever’s leadership across countries that have been badly affected by second waves such as South Africa, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Joining them are more than 50 key opinion leaders (KOLs) including national award-winning actress and Lifebuoy ambassador Kajol Devgn, Bangladesh’s greatest sports icon Shakib Al Hassan, and head coach of India’s National Cricket Team Ravi Shastri, who are requesting fans and followers to support this appeal.


Do it right and we’ll be alright ##DoTheLifebuoySG ##ExtraCleanFam ##SGUnited ##Ad

♬ Do It Right and We'll Be Alright - Ng Zheng Yao

What expectations did consumers have of the brand during this time and how did you meet that? We know that purposeful brands matter more to consumers and perform better, and we believe that’s going to be important both during and after the Covid-19 crisis. In fact, it has never been more relevant for brands to demonstrate their positive contribution to society and address the issues that our consumers care about in an authentic way. For Lifebuoy, the first step is about driving access in a pandemic – making both the products and information on handwashing readily available for at-risk communities and those who need them most. As the world’s third most-chosen FMCG brand and one that has a large footprint and broad communication channels, especially in Asia, we had to leverage our scale to support and play our role in the global transmission reduction efforts. We operated under three core principles:

  • Recognizing that the pandemic is bad for individuals, businesses and the world, so we need to do everything possible alongside governments and public health organizations to help minimize and end it
  • Recognizing the need to spread good hygiene habits and not panic or fear, which is why our PSAs focus on disseminating factual and responsible hygiene messages in line with public health guidelines
  • Recognizing the pandemic as a crisis and not an opportunity, thus we’ve worked 24/7 to maximize the availability of soap and hand sanitizers in places that need it the most

What challenges did you encounter in terms of creating the work during this time, given that we continue to work remotely? Does it impact production or collaboration? We had to adapt our ways of working to keep our team engaged and motivated. While we certainly miss meeting up with one another physically and reliving our team camaraderie, our first and foremost priority is in ensuring a safe working environment for our team.

@graceglazee Do it right and we’ll be alright! ##DoTheLifebuoySG ##ExtraCleanFam ##ad ♬ Do It Right and We'll Be Alright - Ng Zheng Yao

And how did you solve these challenges?

By becoming more creative in our approach to content creation and not limiting ourselves to conventional ways of working. For example, we did home shoots, where one team member would take on several roles as a director and double up an actor, and rope in family members to be part of it.

Will you be adopting any of the new ways of working on a longer-term basis?

We see the value in providing flexible work arrangements and work-from-home options for our employees. On a global level, across Unilever, we see a hybrid future of work, where people might spend a couple of days in the office and two or three days at home or working remotely.

How do you think as a marketer this pandemic has changed the way you work?

The pandemic has accelerated the sense that brands can do so much more to contribute positively and, as a marketer, there are three big learnings for me:

  1. Authenticity – because your brand purpose has to be in the DNA of your brand, it can’t be invented artificially during a time of crisis. People see through that.

  2. Responsibility – because people expect, especially at these times, for brands and institutions to do the right thing, even if it is not immediately business apparent. That’s why we have advocated the use of even our competitor’s soap brands, and that’s why we continue to direct people to official sources of information from reputed government health bodies.

  3. Consistency – because otherwise brands won’t have an impact on scale. Brands need to do tangible things on the ground that make a difference, rather than only talk about things in communications and advertising.

What is next for the brand?

The Covid-19 pandemic has elevated the importance of hygiene and access to quality healthcare. In line with this, a new area of focus for Lifebuoy will be telehealth, which has seen a surge in popularity during the last year. The pandemic has shifted telehealth from an outlier to a necessity almost overnight, as demand for virtual doctor appointments surged amid social distancing measures enacted by governments. Besides protecting both healthcare workers and patients, telehealth also reduces the strain on healthcare systems by minimizing the surge of patient demand on hospital facilities.

During this time of need, Lifebuoy is dedicating itself to building good hygiene habits and democratizing access to healthcare for over 200 million people through collaborations with the fastest-growing telehealth services globally. This service is of particular importance in countries such as India, where there are less than two doctors available to every 10,000 patients compared to the global median of 13 doctors per 10,000 patients. Here, Lifebuoy has partnered with Practo to offer a free consultation service. People will be able to connect with doctors from their homes either via audio or video.

In addition to telehealth, and building on our purpose to inspire good handwashing habits for life, Lifebuoy launched a €30m initiative called ‘H for Handwashing’ to accelerate handwashing behavior change among children. Inspired by how children learn their ABCs, Lifebuoy seeks to influence how the letter H is taught by advocating that H should no longer stand for Hat, Horse or Hippo – H must stand for Handwashing. This movement aims to drive systemic change with the intent of embedding this crucial habit into school curriculums, and it is already coming to life with governments across countries such as South Africa, Sri Lanka and India. This campaign has been recognized at Cannes, with Lifebuoy winning two bronze lions for ‘H for Handwashing’.

Lastly, and recognizing that partnerships form the backbone of our purposeful work enabling us to reach where we cannot alone, Lifebuoy is one of two brands that has joined the Hygiene Behavior Change Coalition (HBCC), a public-private blended finance partnership set up by Unilever and the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19 among the world’s most vulnerable populations through hygiene. The HBCC represents is a £100m investment in hand and surface hygiene via on-the-ground programs, mass communication, digital and product supplies.

Through HBCC we have reached 1 billion people to date, working with 21 NGOs and UN partners. Within this, over 140,000 community health workers and teachers have been trained to deliver information on the importance of correct hygiene practices, and more than 75m hygiene products have been donated in over 60 countries.

Another extremely relevant and valuable collaboration is our partnership with the Global Alliance for Vaccine and Immunization (GAVI). Together we have co-created a program that aims to increase uptake around handwashing with soap and immunization – two critical behaviors. The program has reached over 2 million people in India, with positive results around knowledge and handwashing with soap at critical occasions. Given this success, we have together decided to invest an additional €6m to expand this program to Indonesia.

The power of creativity and unconventional thinking is often a powerful tool for problem-solving, putting marketers in the hot seat for a business’s response to change. Earlier this year, The Drum worked with Adobe on a report on the importance of creativity as a means of finding a way.

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