Inside Lifebuoy’s mission to get the world handwashing

Unilever soap brand Lifebuoy set out on a mission to educate one billion people about handwashing by 2020.

10 years ago, Unilever soap brand Lifebuoy set out on a mission to educate one billion people about handwashing by 2020. The brand has hit its target, just as the coronavirus pandemic began – and put humble handwashing on the agenda.

Over the last decade, while social media users in developed markets laughed at the notion that people needed to be told to wash their hands, Lifebuoy expanded its education and social responsibility efforts from emerging markets to countries like the UK, one of the countries now worst-hit by the virus.

Lifebuoy set what it called an ‘audacious target’ of educating 1 billion people about hand washing by 2020 back in 2010, as part of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP). The target was set based on the finding that one child dies from pneumonia or diarrhoea every 23 seconds somewhere in the world; education around handwashing could potentially play a large part in reducing such fatalities.

The Drum spoke with Unilever executive vice president, Global Skin Cleansing, Samir Singh, who says the latest initiative with the UK government was intended to scale its existing brand purpose efforts and reach another 1 billion people.

“All the work Lifebuoy is doing to reduce the spread of the outbreak is inspired and driven by the brand’s purpose of saving lives and helping people fall ill a little less often. We mobilized quickly and acted at speed following public health guidelines to raise awareness of handwashing with soap as a key measure to stay protected,” he says.

Core to the message was speed, but also prioritising the public service element and asking people to use any soap, not just its own – a new route for the brand.

“Within 12 hours of news of the outbreak, we collaborated across our teams to coordinate a response. Our message was clear: wash your hands with soap, not just Lifebuoy, but any soap, even that of our competitors – something we’ve never done before. Within 24 hours this public service announcement was shared all over the world. We’ve reached 1 billion households already and will continue to amplify it wherever and whenever we can,” he says.

Unilever is also donating over 20m products around the world to frontline workers, using its factories to scale up production for people who work as health workers, caretakers or taxi drivers, for example.

Despite renewed efforts and heightened demand, hygiene education is nothing new for Lifebuoy. While the last 10 years have been all about scaling-up on its mission, it’s had over 125 years of experience using education as a marketing tool.

Singh offers a potted history of the brand: “If you want to understand Lifebuoy, you need to understand our history. When our founder, William Lever, first launched the Lifebuoy soap brand in the 1800s, it helped fight the spread of cholera in 1893. Soap was also crucial in reducing the spread of the Spanish flu in 1918, the 2003 Sars outbreak and the H1N1 flu in 2009.

“In 2010, Lifebuoy launched the ’Help a Child Reach 5’ campaign, designed to change hygiene behaviours and reduce child mortality rates instilling good handwashing habits across the world. We started off in three countries and have now reached 1 billion people in 30+ countries, making this the largest behaviour change program in the world through on-ground programmes and communication.”

Lifebuoy's heritage supporting hygiene decisions amid health crises has helped the brand navigate its dual role in the current moment – custodian of a public service message, and a commercial enterprise. Singh is keen to stress that Unilever sees its handwashing drive as a means to ending the virus.

“I’d like to stress that this pandemic is bad for us, as individuals, as a society as a global economy and as Unilever. We are doing everything possible alongside our governments and public health organizations to help minimize and end it.

“Lifebuoy’s products and our social responsibility are intrinsically linked. Lifebuoy’s purpose is grounded on our social responsibility to keep society protected from infections, and we are doing this by ensuring our products reach the most people as quickly as possible. We believe this is the time for everyone to come together for a bigger cause,” he explains.

Authenticity is important to Singh. In fact, it’s the first part of three pieces of advice that he offers to brands that want to play a role in social responsibility marketing or public service messaging.

“My advice would be to look at three things: authenticity, responsibility and consistency at scale,” he says. Authenticity is number one, Singh asserts, because corporate purpose needs to be in a brand’s DNA. “It can’t be invented artificially during the time of crisis. People very easily see through that kind of purpose washing,” he notes.

Singh says responsibility is actually an expectation during tougher times as people lean on brands and institutions to do the right thing. He says this is the anchor for being neutral in the soap people use and links to government resources.

Finally, he says, a company can’t have an impact at scale without consistency. He says: “Brands need to do tangible things on the ground that make a difference, rather than only talk about things in communications and advertising.”

Scaling the partnership with the UK government to reach one billion people is next on the agenda; the brand has sought an extensive list of channels and partnerships to do this. It launched a ’#dothelifebuoy’ challenge globally on TikTok to help people understand the correct duration and method for washing hands, which has hit over 50 billion views. It’s launched myth-busting content on Facebook and Google, with its influencer campaign on Instagram reaching over 8m views.

It’s also making sure its mission is effective, partnering with UK Aid and global NGOs such as Unicef, Wateraid, UNHCR and Save The Children.

“When we first embarked on our public service information campaign, we were conscious of the important role we can play in propagating proper hand hygiene habits in the wake of the scale of this pandemic. However, no matter how important messages are, we know people become desensitised to them after a while and thus we are looking at different ways to keep people engaged and reminding them of the importance of hand hygiene,” he explains.

With many countries tipping into the third or fourth month of pandemic disruption, finding new and positive ways to stay relevant and educate will be a hard task for Lifebuoy. The heritage it brings to its messaging will add weight, but creativity and new thinking will be necessary for it to keep having an impact.

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