Modern Marketing

Unilever's Paul Polman says inclusive companies financially perform better


By Imogen Watson | Senior reporter

March 20, 2019 | 4 min read

Unilever’s recently retired chief executive, Paul Polman, has put forward the business revolution for inclusion at Advertising Week arguing that companies that have a more inclusive environment are companies that financially perform better.

During a Q&A alongside Caroline Casey, the founder of the Valuable 500, Polman called upon businesses to refrain from being ‘diversish’ – the reality that while 90% of companies claim to prioritise diversity, only 4% are focussed on making offerings inclusive of disability.

In terms of the profit/purpose debate, Polman says he "doesn't believe in profit with purpose" but "believes in purpose and doing purpose very well... which ultimately gives you the profit.”

Paul Polman on inclusivity in the workplace

Paul Polman on inclusivity in the workplace

To drive home why this should matter for brands, he made a case that a firmer stance on diversity and inclusion in the workplace can lead to greater business potential.

He refuted the idea that this was a coincidence, but rather an example of "cause and effect" and demonstrated that within Unilever's subsidiaries in 190 countries, he could see the difference with companies that were further advanced in inclusivity.

"You can read it in engagement scores, you can read it in innovation and ultimately in profitability and return on investment," he said.

And it goes beyond diversity in the workplace. Statistics show that 53% of the population is affected by disability – directly and indirectly. Together with friends and family, this group has a spending power of $8 trillion – an opportunity businesses cannot afford to ignore.

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Therefore, brands who embrace inclusion can open themselves up to a whole new market. During Polman's tenure at the top of Unilever, the company actively changed conversations by launching a number of effective campaigns that put diversity right at the centre.

Back in 2015, Dove enlisted a visually impaired woman to explain what beauty meant to her, while another Unilever brand, Cornetto, launched an ad that featured a mute person.

Polman believes that is "some of the most effective advertising" because they are "human" and stressed that "brands need to bring humanity back to the centre as its the foundation of society."

Polman was the first chief executive to get onboard the Valuable 500 – a global project that aims to put disability on the business leadership agenda. The initiative calls for 500 chief executives to get on board, not just sign their signature, but actively commit to making business less 'diversish.'

So far, other than Polman, the Valuable 500 boasts the involvement of Virgin Group’s Richard Branson, Omnicom Group’s Janet Riccio and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, among others. Today (20 March) it announced Sainsbury's, John Wren from Omnicom and World Economic Forum had also come on board.

Virgin Media has joined forces with the disability equality charity, Scope, to support a million disabled people to get and stay in work by the end of 2020.

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