Unilever CEO Alan Jope: ‘We'll dispose of brands that don’t stand for something’

Jope cited Dove, which recently launched its #ShowUs beauty campaign, as a brand leading the way through purpose

Newly-ointed Unilever chief executive Alan Jope has outlined his vision for the future of the FMGC giant's marketing department, and the products it sells, saying the business will "dispose" of any brands that lack purposeful messaging.

Six months into stepping taking over from Paul Poleman as chief executive of Unilever, Alan Jope is an ex-marketer who has stepped from position president of beauty and personal care to run the business. As he shares his vision for the future, what is clear that brand purpose will be key to the decisions he takes – and he's not afraid to cull brands that don't align with his vision.

The company is currently working with Kantar to measure consumer perceptions around how Unilever brands are achieving their purpose-driven goals, and Jope says those not living up to the company's high standards set are likely to be sold off.

“We will dispose of brands that we feel are not able to stand for something more important than just making your hair shiny, your skin soft, your clothes whiter or your food tastier," he told journalists at a closed event during Cannes Lions.

Acknowledging that this is no simple feat, Jope reveals he will give brands "some time" to adjust and find their purpose should they be lacking one.

"There won’t be a set deadline to achieve it; it’ll be a gradual process. But I would imagine in a few years’ time we will look at our portfolio and the dramatic majority of our brands will be competing with a clear view on what little good they can do for society or the planet,” he adds.

Fresh off the stage at the Cannes Lions Festival, where he called out brands claiming to stand for a purpose without delivering, Jope relays why purpose is so vitally important to Unilever.

“Doing business responsibly is very deep in our DNA,” he states before reiterating his belief that "woke-washing" from brands is undermining people's trust in advertising.

“Brands that talk purposeful messages, but don’t do anything in the real world about it are at risk of further endangering the reputation and trust of marketing and advertising.

"And, by contrast, those that do take a stand on an issue and do take action become not just a beacon, not just typically better performing as a brand, but have the opportunity to restore hope in trust in advertising and trust in marketing,” Jope says.

Purpose is profitable

The chief exec adds that increased investment in brands that stand for something is impacting the company's bottom line too.

“We have acquired €2.8bn of turnover, all purposeful brands, and we have disposed of €4bn of turnover from brands that we think don’t have a long-term proposition and are stuck in low-growth categories," he notes.

He's referring to Unilever's sell-off of its spreads business to KKR in 2017.

"It was big decision for us as it was one of the founding categories of the company," he says."We didn’t think it had good long-growth prospects, so we exited it. The process of buying and selling is one that we are used to.”

He cites the success of brands such as Dove and Ben & Jerry’s as two brands within the Unilever stable that have grown as a result of embracing purpose, noting how just over half of Unilever's turnover comes from brands it would define as being "purpose-led".

This is a figure Jope expects to rise to 80% in a "few years' time" simply because it's the fastest growing part of the businesses' extensive portfolio.

"We can shift resources internally to the brands that are walking the talk in the direction we want to go," he adds.

Jope welcomes more competition coming from other brands using purpose as a platform but is firm in that those not living up to the claims made should be called out.

“The world needs [more purpose] and the industry needs it. We pour scorn on brands that talk the talk without walking the walk." he says. "If there is an overall loss of trust in marketing and brands, then [Unilever] will still be in a disproportionately strong situation by having some authentic, purpose-led brands.”

The strategy is not a short-term one. Jope’s ambitions are high, but building brand purpose takes years, and he's aware of that.

“Volvo is synonymous with safety because it didn’t talk about anything else for years. To land something with the general population takes ages with brutal consistency, and that’s what it will take — that consistency of messaging — to shift consumer perception,” he says.

One brand he offers as currently falling foul of the expectations being set is body wash brand Caress. He admits the business is "struggling," but some of Unilever’s best people are now working on the brand to see if they can “puzzle it out.”

“Consumers want to know what is behind the brand, so standing still when the world is moving forward is not a route to survival and growth.”

A vision for Unilever's marketing department

As well as continuing Poleman's purpose-built legacy, Jope is also working on diversifying how Unilever creates the content that sells these brands — forging new partnerships and changing the way it works with agencies.

Jope reveals that the business has begun to work with entertainment companies in Hollywood and Bollywood as it aims to create content, rather than ads.

When it comes to agencies, he wants to shake up the model too.

In 2017, Unilever's then-chief marketing officer Keith Weed pledged to slash the number of agencies on the group's roster (which then stood at 3000) in half. Last year, the marketer then revealed he was testing a model that plucked talent from within holding group P&Ls to work on brand briefs.

This way of working continues, explains Jope, noting that Unilever is "two-thirds" of the way through shifting its brand relationships to the holding company-level rather than the sub-brands below.

“Where we are at right now is not about increasing or reducing the number of agencies on our roster; we have structured our relationships much more with the holding companies than with the individual agencies underneath."

He goes on: "I know WPP has all the talent that we need to solve our brand problems, and so do Omnicom and IPG, but I don’t want to just have a relationship within one vertical [within] them; I want them to take a problem and then go find the expertise and talent to solve it."

This expectation will be the new normal from Unilever’s stable of brands, he states, and admits that there is less concern over competitive conflicts across each network-owned agency.

“We don’t want the same people working with competitors at the same time, but the holding companies will have to work on our competitors as well as our business – that is fine."

"We do ask that the holding company create some internal barriers to prevent the flow of sensitive or confidential information between teams" he continues, pointing out that Unilever also has a "great partnership" with Facebook, which works with P&G and L’Oreal. "So, get real.” Unilever has recently joined the social network others in forming a global 'digital safety' alliance.

Those might be important relationships, but so is having an in-house capability. The boss offers insight into the in-house creative department Unilever has established called UStudios, based in 21 locations across 18 countries: “It claims to have broken that paradigm of better, cheaper, faster — and in a world where you are working in real-time... I’m most excited the internal capability to respond quickly to events of popular culture.”

A new CMO

Reflecting on having to replace longtime marketing and communications chief Keith Weed, who recently stood down after becoming one of the industry's most respected professionals, Jope explains that while the chief marketing role will remain “core”, it will be a slightly different role with “a few different things” added.

“We will chip off 20% and add 20%”, he offers, revealing that a decision has not been made on who will replace Weed. Internal candidates have been considered and whoever is the successful applicant must come with a pedigree in purpose, too.

“We have looked externally and internally to make sure that we get the very best candidate,” he explains.

Read more about Jope’s view on brands failing to live up to their purpose-led claims, which he spoke about at the Cannes Lions Festival in the Palais

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