Unilever CMO Keith Weed lifts lid on plan to push marketing beyond brand development

Unilever’s chief marketing officer Keith Weed has emphasised how it is moving marketing beyond brand development alone, and in doing so sustainably generate new revenues from services instead of ads.

Integration, whether with its agencies, sustainability strategies or at market level, is the biggest challenge for the top marketer at the world’s second biggest advertiser. Weed’s task, similar to those of his peers, is further complicated by the pace people are adopting new technology, making integration for a brand’s sake one of the biggest obstacles he as the business moves forward.

The challenge of integration has never been a big and central focus for a marketer [as it is now], Weed told delegates today (2 June) at the Financial Times’ Marketing Innovators Summit. “How a brand stands up in one channel versus the other is quite extraordinary and it is a challenge synching this up.”

For Unilever, the key is its agencies and how they support its evolving paid, owned and earned marketing model. Weed called for “greater integration” from its agency partners though he admitted this had been made harder by the company’s need to broaden the types of companies it works with, from start-up to global technology companies. Whereas advertising and in turn marketing was greatly dependent on the aligned objectives between brand and agency now there are so many different bodies with different lines of objectives, creating a natural tension.

“Does Google live for building Dove? No it doesn’t,” said Weed. We’re a big advertiser with them but Google has many other purposes in life other than just building Dove. The fact that there is tension here doesn’t mean you ignore it. What we need to do is find ways people can engage with these areas, providing real utility on any platform.”

The issue dovetails with the company’s long-term plan to move internal perceptions of technology from being seen solely as a channel to an actual service for consumers. The wider media industry, except for search, has yet to crack the conundrum either, claimed Weed but the business has been making early strides to get ahead in the game, seeing it as way to generate revenue from communications in markets where access to media is limited.

For instance, the business needed a way to reach people in Bihar, a region in India with the lowest access to media and yet has high mobile phone penetration. It created a radio station that gave people 15 minutes of free entertainment along with ads for Unilever brands when they missed call a number. The service proved popular with more than 8 million unique visitors in six months and the ads were heard more than 50 million times, according to Weed.

The notion of integration is also being applied internally at Unilever, around how the business makes sustainability drive revenue from its brands. By baking it into the core of marketing strategies for brands such as Dove, Ben and Jerry’s and Domestos, Unilever saw them deliver half its growth in 2014, growing at twice the rate of those outside of its Sustainable Living Plan. Additionally, the sustainability brands delivered 200 basis points higher gross margin,

"Being creative has never been so hard,” he continued. "You have to have a real creative zeal to break through the clutter. But breaking through the clutter isn’t enough. You need to engage people who are going to spend that length of time with you. There are many ways tech can be a better service.”

On the subject of technology, Unilever’s chief marketer said the emergence of wearables had sparked a paradigm shift that was going to be “species changing”. Implants, which are seen as the next iteration of wearables when the technology is embedded into people, will truly enable marketers to provide utilities, taking advantage of how “they’ll be able to enhance your performance,” added Weed.

3D printing is also being closely watched by the FMCG business, which believes it could pave the way for costs out of the supply chain to other revenue generating areas.

With so much change happening at pace the business needs leaders who intuitively understand how technology and innovation impacts peoples’ lives. It is proving a sticking point at Unilever, where the bulk of its leaders, similarly to its peers, are what Weed claimed were the “lost generation” in their “late 30s and early 40s” that acknowledge digital’s importance though are not digital natives.

Separately, Weed used his presentation to inject fresh impetus for his calls for the introduction of tougher viewability standards. Last year, the business tied with GroupM to establish higher standards than those used by the rest of the advertising industry as to what constitutes a viewed ad. The decision, while highly controversial, is simple in that it means humans must see all of an ad rather than most of it.

The industry is debating whether [viewability] should be 70 per cent or 90 per cent, said Weed. “Can you imagine your mum or dad going into a s tore and buying 50 PG Tips and then getting them home only to find inside that there are 45 and us saying as an industry we’ve agreed on 90 per cent delivery. It’s absurd. [The industry] has to find a way of getting 100 per cent."

Marketing has always played a key role for Unilever but as it accelerates into emerging markets to grow sales the discipline is being called on even more so to spot and embrace the business models needed to thrive. From ecommerce to start-ups, Weed said modern marketers “shouldn’t be brand developers”, they should “own the outside".

"In the last six weeks I've spoken to [WPP’s] Sir Martin Sorrell, [Facebook’s] Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg as well {Vice Media’s Eddie Moretti] and Martha Lane Fox. I’m speaking to them because I’m trying to find out what’s going on. If I can bring that [insight] into Unilever then that makes me highly valuable to the business. The CFO controls where the money’s going. I’m seeing where the money is going to come from. That’s an exciting role to have," he added.

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