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Has Unilever's ambition to eradicate gender stereotyping from its own ads been successful?


By The Drum Reporters, Editorial team

June 20, 2017 | 8 min read

It’s been one year since Unilever unveiled its global ambition to eradicate gender stereotypes from its ads. Now as it launches a new Unstereotype Alliance, how has its original pledge impacted its bottom line and the way it works with the industry? The Drum’s Rebecca Stewart and Robyn Darbyshire explore.

“Our industry spends billions of dollars annually shaping perceptions and we have a responsibility to use this power in a positive manner.” Those were the words of Unilever’s chief marketing officer Keith Weed at Cannes Lions last year when his brand committed to stop stereotyping women in adverts across its 400-something strong brand portfolio which includes Dove, Lynx, Flora and Magnum.

This year, the company is building on that promise with the formation of an Unstereotype Alliance in partnership with UN Women. The collective will bring together leaders from global tech and advertising giants including WPP, Facebook, Google, Mars and Microsoft to tackle the widespread prevalence of stereotypes that are often perpetuated through advertising.

12 months on from its original pledge and it looks like the firm's ‘Unstereotype’ initiative is proving fruitful for the brand when it comes to consumer perceptions. In 2017 alone it saw a 24% increase in consumers rating Unilever’s ads as progressive, according to data from research group Millward Brown, which is helping the company track its progress.

Over the course of the year brands like Lynx (Axe in the States) with its ‘Is It OK for Guys’ campaign and Peril with its ongoing ‘Dirt Is Good’ work from MullenLowe have led the way with this initiative. The former has ditched its lad-focused strategy in favour of a more sensitive approach and the latter has sought to show that anyone – girls included – can get their hands dirty.

While Unilever says it’s too early to evaluate the social impact of the promise, the company's global executive vice-president of marketing and head of diversity and inclusion Aline Santos, heralds the year-on-year increase as “exciting." She says the ads the brand has tested on consumers scored “significantly stronger on other measures of effectiveness,” and inspired greater scores than the brand initially predicted.

Looking at the group’s most recent financial results – which show an underlying sales growth of 3.7% - there is nothing in black and white to demonstrate how ‘Unstereotype’ has contributed to the Unilever’s bottom line financially but Santos says that the brand knows its commercial and social objectives are intrinsically linked – “having a sustainable business which has a positive impact on society helps to drive business growth,” she asserts.

Rob Sellers, managing director of shopping activation agency Grey Shopper – which works closely with Unilever rival Procter & Gamble - says he sees Unilever’s move to build equity and fame around an agenda to bond with audiences it hasn’t previously managed to connect as a positive thing. Though, on whether he thinks it will drive brand consideration when people are making low interest decisions around what hair care or groceries to pop in the baskets he isn’t as convinced.

“Possibly,” he muses, “but my sense is this is not going to be a primary driver of success with shoppers. And in some cases, as with Dove, it might mean a confusing dilution of iconic assets which could actually have a negative effect at shelf. I would be surprised if there was any genuine link between this agenda and meaningful sales uplift.”

Santos, however, tells The Drum that "significant media money" is being put behind Lynx's wider 'Find Your Magic' campaign and Dove's 'Real Beauty Pledge' to drive business and brand results. "This is critically important for us and our belief in the impact of 'Unstereotype'," she says.

Rethinking the process

Just as there's been a turn in the tide around perception, this has been underpinned by intrinsic shift in the way the Unilever works internally and with its roster of creative agencies.

Santos explains that the FMCG giant has been working with all of its brands over the past year to implement “clear guidelines” which cover everything from strategic development to creative execution. Part of this involves monitoring Unilever’s communication to ensure its progressive in how it portrays people, while on the agency side it co-creates with partners to ensure they work to the established procedures.

Ayesha Walawalkar, global planning director on the Persil Account at MullenLowe London, notes that at times this new way of thinking takes time, especially for global work, with the agency driving briefs, insights and casting.

Walawalkar hints that across household care and laundry categories several campaigns are due to break in the second half of 2017, which is when customers are really going to start seeing a lot of the new approach coming into play.

“You can’t underestimate how much work it takes to rethink the whole process,” she adds. “The testing process is fascinating, because then what you run up against are the stereotypes that are actually in consumers’ minds and how they interpret what you’re trying to do. There are implicit assumptions that consumers make, and you only realise this when you start to put stuff out there. Once you start going through this process you realise it’s not simply about our own biases and changing how we approach it.”

As well as evolving how it works with its incumbent agencies, Santos says that Unilever also incorporates its ‘Unstereotype’ ethos into its account review process.

“’Unstereotype’ is completely embedded in our agency selection, we must get to a stage where we are working only with those who are able to grasp, communicate and implement our ‘Unstereotype’ ambition to enable us to continue this journey and help us shape progress for our brands,” she explains.

Unboxing stereotypes

There is no arguing that these processes have in some cases helped yield ads that are more reflective of modern consumers. Lynx’s latest push to challenge ‘manly stereotypes has been widely lauded for its no-holds barred approach, however some stereotypes have still managed to slip through the cracks.

The headway Dove, one of Unilever’s most purpose-driven brands, made with its ‘Real Beauty Pledge’ initiative at the start of the year was somewhat dampened by the release of body-shaped shower bottles which were subject to mass ridicule online.

Billy Faithfull, WCRS' executive creative director argues the industry shouldn't be too quick off the mark in discrediting progress because of a slip up. "I have a lot of respect for brands that experiment in any form, and we shouldn't judge too harshly when they get it wrong, no matter how bone-crushingly awkward the bottles thing was," he says. "It will make our industry very boring if no one is allowed to fail at being different."

On the flip side Chris Pearce, chief executive at TMW Unlimited which created Magnum’s 2015 ‘Pink and Black’ campaign says just a few weeks after Unilever’s new initiative was announced last year he was surprised to see Magnum’s ‘Release the Beast’ campaign still running. Having been unveiled by Lola MullenLowe last March, the spot depicts a series of “breathtakingly beautiful, stick thin female models walking around with pet lions as they provocatively, lingeringly bite into delicious Magnum ice creams."

He continues: “Would that ad get signed off today? In my humble opinion probably - hopefully not, but a year is a long time in advertising and things are different at Unilever these days. What is clear to me is that [agencies] need to be absolutely sure [their] assets are not simply stereotype free but also as emotionally engaging as possible.

"For a truly global organisation, it’s no mean feat to take every market with you on this journey, simultaneously and consistently."

Going global

The challenges that come with implementing the initiative across 400 brands in cluttered global markets is not something that is lost on Santos, who tells The Drum that when addressing something as nuanced as stereotypes there's no "one-size fits all" strategy.

Instead, one of Unilever's key principles is to ‘bring Scale’ to purpose-driven marketing. To do this it has challenged brands to 'Unstereotype' everywhere they operate.

"Our biggest brands and biggest successes have done just that," she says, pointing to tea brand Brooke Bond which has built its new campaign on the insight that deep-rooted stereotypes hold people back from forming new relationships.

On food brand Knorr, a similar shift away from traditional 'family role' casting has seen a greater involvement of men in the kitchen across markets that include Europe, Nigeria and Brazil.

"We’re proud of our progress, but never complacent. There’s more work to do and we won’t stop driving change across our brands and the industry at large. Progressive advertising needs to become the norm rather than the preserve of a few brands and campaigns," says Santos.

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