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Why Unilever’s marketers aren’t embracing sustainability and how Nationwide became credible in a poorly trusted sector

Despite Unilever launching a 10 year Sustainability Living Plan in 2010, the FMCG giant’s marketers are causing the biggest barrier in embracing sustainability, according to the company’s global vice president for sustainable business Karen Hamilton.

While Unilever’s sustainable brands, including Dove and Domestos, made up more than half the company’s growth in 2014 and are growing twice as fast, Hamilton said that she was “surprised” to learn the business’ marketing team was failing to grasp its sustainability strategy.

“The biggest challenge, which is a surprise for me coming from a marketing background myself, has been to shift the marketeers in Unilever,” she said while speaking at the Havas/Channel 4 Meaningful Brands event yesterday (14 July).

“We do global employee surveys every year and one of the questions we always ask is ‘Do you feel that you are able to build sustainability into your day-to-day working life?’ And what we found is that the marketing community is 20 points behind the rest of the company.”

Unilever’s marketing team are “more often than not” saying they are failing to find ways to build sustainability into the day-to-day work that the FMCG giant is doing.

“They asked us, ‘Are consumers interested? Is this relevant to my consumers?’ And those who say it is relevant [are saying] ‘This isn’t the kind of marketing I did before, I need to think differently,’ and that can be quite daunting,” added Hamilton.

Also speaking at the event was Nationwide brand controller Paul Hibbs who explained how the building society has managed to maintain credibility in a poorly trusted and scandal-hit sector. He claimed that unlike other banks Nationwide – which is owned by its members opposed to shareholders – stoically makes decisions that are in the interest of its consumers rather than for profit.

“We can genuinely, as an organisation that is 169 years old, say that while the market changes the beliefs fundamentally haven’t,” he said. “In the last six or seven years it [Nationwide] hasn’t had any fines, because we make the decisions we believe are right in the interest of our members. Nationwide is not really a markteteers dream; we are here to safeguard, help people make the most of their money, and fundamentally we are here to do the right thing for people rather than maximising return… Sticking to our principles has allowed us to become trusted in a poorly trusted sector.”

Channel 4 chief executive David Abraham also took to the stage to speak about the broadcaster's recent Persona Synthetics ad stunt to promote new TV drama Humans.