Unilever will need to respect locality if its diversity crusade is to rise above benevolent rhetoric

Unilever

Unilever has joined a growing throng of companies claiming to push diversity beyond marketing buzzword to business mandate. But dropping sexist stereotypes won’t cut it alone and the advertiser will need to respect cultural nuances if it is to avoid turning its brands into political lightning rods, writes Jennifer Faull and Seb Joseph.

Change is afoot at the world’s second biggest advertiser. Gender stereotyping in its ads are a thing of the past, claimed executive vice president of marketing Aline Santos, who admitted the business, along with its peers, has exacerbated the issue over the years. 86 years to be precise and there’s a pervading sense that the impetus to stop stereotyping women in adverts now is underpinned by the realisation beyond morality, it's a savvy move commercially.

The global incomes of women are predicted to reach a staggering $18trn by 2018, according to professional services firm EY. More importantly, they drive 70 to 80 per cent of all consumer purchasing. Numbers that amount to what Santos called a “business imperative” Unilever can no longer ignore, though one that must be planned for with great care.

It's not been lost on the FMCG giant that there is a fine line between being progressive and being political in some regions were it trades. Trying to flip the role of women in ads could have farther reaching consequences in Middle-Eastern counties than in the West, for example.

"When we talk about un-stereotyping what we are trying to do is be more respectful. What I’m not suggesting is that we become so progressive in the way we do advertising that we become disrespectful to people," said Santos.

"In some cultures, some things are not possible. In some places, depending on what you say and do you can go to jail. This is something we don’t want, that’s not our role.

“We are not creating a new political party that is going to talk about some of these issues in countries. We are just asking everyone to be more conscious of stereotypes."

One Unilever brand already changing is Axe (or Lynx in the UK). Scrapping the laddish swagger of previous campaigns, the advertiser relaunched it earlier this year to present a deodorant for all confident men, regardless of colour, appearance, disability or sexuality.

And the approach appears to have already lifted Unilever’s personal products (its largest category) in the first quarter, with sales up 5.8 per cent.

Unsurprisingly, ads featuring relatable protagonists are more effective. Indeed, Unilever’s new ad mantra saw its Red Label Tea Indian brand scooped the Grand Prix Lion for challenging the country’s attitudes toward transgender. Dove, Knorr and Lifebuoy are all being recalibrated around the strategy,, while Unilever’s agencies including BBH, 72andSunny, DDB, Ogilvy and MulenLowe are applying it to campaigns.

Much as having a link between relatable brands and sales successes is logical, it’s only now that more marketers are starting to turn common sense into marketing investments. There’s still an unconscious bias that rules how brands are represented in ads believe many observers. And yet calls for change now seem to be gathering some much-needed momentum. In the UK the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) put out a call for evidence on this very issue just weeks ago.

“Ideas have to reflect culture, or help shape it for the better – and in today’s culture there are no more stereotypes,” said Andrew Dimitriou, president of Y&R Europe. “We all use toothpaste whether we are trans, gay or straight. Long gone are the days when men went to work and women stayed at home to do the cooking, cleaning and childcare alone.”

But as marketers scramble to jump on the diversity bandwagon there’s a danger that this will lead to more stereotyping. It’s a prospect that has former BBH senior creative Rosie Arnold worried ahead of taking up her role as a creative partner and head of art at AMV BBDO next month.

“When I was looking through advertising at the moment is feels like a lot of ads trying to challenge the stereotype become an ad about challenging the stereotype and lose the product,” she warned on a panel at Cannes this week. “What I would ask is that creatives don’t just make an ad about changing the stereotype. “

Or as WCRS’ creative director Billy Faithful puts it: “Much as I applauded [Unilever’s] merits, I have the creeping sensation that many gender-role re-considering, ugly-is-the-new-beautiful campaigns smell distinctly bandwagony.

"I’ve even seen a direct request for one on a pitch brief. And when the parodies start to flow, you know something’s rotten on La Croisette. Google ‘John St Jane St’ - “If she’s crying, she’s buying…”

That’s not to say Unilever will fail in its bid to turn progressive advertising into profitable marketing. The company is already proving the doubters wrong in its ability to turn a profit from sustainability, generating around a billion dollars annually from sustainable products and services. Social good can be an extremely viable alternative to business as usual and time will tell whether lightning strikes twice for Unilever.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.