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By John McCarthy, Opinion editor

July 7, 2020 | 6 min read

The world’s top brands have to engage with, not boycott, social media networks like Facebook if they wish to improve the ecosystem, says Unilever’s marketing boss, Aline Santos.

The consumer goods giant announced on 26 June that it will be pausing Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter ad spend in the US until the end of the year - coinciding with the upcoming presidential election. Other top brands have, meanwhile, opted for a mass boycott of the social media giant.

Unilever, which has a global presence in 190 countries, will still be investing in social media platforms internationally, but it will remain dark in the US. Despite more than 160 top brands boycotting Facebook in June as part of the ‘Stop Hate for Profit’ campaign, Unilever says it will not be taking part in this movement.

Santos, the executive vice president of global marketing and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Unilever was keen to outline that the timings with the Facebook boycotts throughout June are merely coincidental, telling The Drum: “We are not part of the Facebook boycott, the relationship that we have with all the social media is very long term.”

With brands already culling their marketing budgets amid the Covid-19 pandemic, some marketers have seen an opportunity to trim spend and accumulate some positive PR.The World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) reports that a third of the top brands are likely to suspend social media spending this month.

However, to Facebook, this will likely be more of a reputational pain than a financial one. The social network is a miracle of SMEs, gaining three-quarters of its revenues from small and medium-sized advertisers who are unlikely, and likely incapable of moving their presence and spend.

Meanwhile, Santos predicts a surge in polarizing debate in the newsfeeds ahead with the upcoming Trump vs Biden presidential election coming. The conversations, she thinks, could hurt the brand.

“We don't want our brands to be part of the very toxic conversation that is going on in the newsfeed off the social media. It is not anything particular to one company or another, it’s just we don’t want our brands in a toxic environment.”

Almost indirectly, it'll have to push Facebook to act - whether the boycott is direct or not. Despite Unilever’s disappearance from platforms in the US, Santos is quick to warn against boycotts. To improve Facebook, one must work with it - although its chief executive Mark Zuckerberg recently expressed a confidence that the big brands will return.

Santos said: “We have been really engaging with the social media players, not in an activist way, or fighting against them and then shouting at them. We are we have been very much at the center of the discussion within those companies.”

These last few years have been tough for Facebook, it's been blamed for the rise of Trump and the erosion of trust in democracy as a result of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It cannot be accused of funding this machine if indeed Facebook makes the same mistakes.

Speaking on behalf of one of the biggest advertisers in the world, Santos said: “Everyone who has an investment in media today has a new responsibility to really be cautious about what is going on in the world.”

The accusations leveled at Facebook is that it has monetized the hate speech it helps distribute. From an advertiser perspective, many ascribing to this paradigm will be uncomfortable funding such content.

While Santos takes a diplomatic stance towards the networks, not all the brands in the Unilever stable are as careful. Ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s is on a mission to dismantle white supremacy and Santos picked it out as one of the most vocal and convincing brand voices during the surge of Black Lives Matter movement. “This is not a marketing exercise,” said Ben & Jerry’s global head of activism Christopher Miller.

Santos believes Unilever can have a positive impact on the world. “People today actually demand brands to be accountable, transparent, and definitely authentic.” She added: “Consumers also expect brands to step in the center up to help solve society's problems. We can’t just think about top line and bottom line, we have to be in the front line.”

In lockdown, the group's looked to help brands, and was quick to embark on an extensive Coronavirus response programme on March – committing €100m to curtail the spread of coronavirus through the donation of soap, sanitizer, bleach and food. It also ran a global hand-washing campaign that helped educate up to a billion of the world’s most vulnerable people on good hygiene during the pandemic.

Speaking with her diversity and inclusion hat on, Santos explained that “belonging is the new level of diversity inclusion”, the next chapter of that journey. The job’s like “pushing water up the hill” she said, but progress is being made.

Santos spoke with The Drum’s Sonoo Singh as part of The Drum’s Can-Do Festival, an online event celebrating the positive energy, innovation and creative thinking that can make the marketing community such a powerful force for good. You can watch the interview in full here.

You can watch the full schedule of Can-Do content, here.

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