Unilever CMO on how in-housing helped it through the pandemic: ‘U-Studio use grew 40%’

Conny Braams has been crowned the WFA’s Global Marketer of the Year. The Drum catches up with the Unilever chief marketing and digital officer.

Conny Braams took over from advertising industry legend and 2017 Marketer of the Year winner Keith Weed in January 2020 in an expanded digital and marketing role. At the time, chief executive Alan Jope described Braams as “critical to the transformation of Unilever into a future-fit, fully digitized organization at the leading edge of consumer marketing”.

Little did he know just how critical she would be when, three months later, the world was plunged into uncertainty as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. While other businesses were hit hard, Unilever credited its “resilience and agility” for a 1.9% growth in sales. Braams played no small part in this.

“Of course, while causing hardship, constraints and uncertainty, Covid also led to a lot of creativity, agility and speed, mostly enabled by digital,” she explains.

“The strategy I had put in place only become more relevant. The future came forward by a couple of years and accelerated this end-to-end digital transformation of our business.”

As consumers shifted online, she doubled down on Unilever’s investment in AI and machine learning, which by virtue became more accurate with the sheer volumes of transactions it was seeing. That data was then used to find trends and spot new growth opportunities.

“People now live, shop and consume differently. There’s a convergence of media, entertainment and commerce, and that firstly led to us to see e-commerce increase rapidly.” Digital sales grew by nearly two-thirds (61%) during the financial year of 2020-2021, and a shift in ad spend followed.

“Digital spend is now more than 40%. In China, it’s 90%. We’re setting ourselves up for new opportunities that have arisen because of Covid, which are happening quicker.”

Managing its foray into these new areas are new ‘digital hubs’ that now manage everything from creative to partnerships with influencers and experiments into new areas such as gaming. Over the past two years the volume of work flowing through them has increased as a result of this uptick in digital spend. Significantly.

“We realized we needed to change the remit of the digital hubs to become commerce hubs,” says Braams of this pandemic-induced evolution. “They have to build brands in the best possible way and drive conversion at the same time. We need to create one customer experience across all these many consumer touchpoints. If you don’t have it in hand, it becomes much more difficult.”

In tandem it is plowing more work and investment into U-Studio, its in-house creative division that has expanded to 21 studios.

Marketers are using U-Studio 40% more this year than last year, she says, because its offering has broadened.

That’s not to say Unilever isn’t still reliant on agencies. Under Braams’s watchful eye it put its $3.3bn media account out to tender in September, retaining WPP’s Mindshare for much of the business. Striking the balance between outsourcing to agencies and funneling projects through U-Studio is an ever present challenge for the marketer.

“We very much believe in the holding company partners and making sure that the totality of that delivers quality, consistency and cost efficiency,” she says.

“Unilever is constantly looking for the best capabilities and then asking if it’s something we should in-house or continue to outsource. It would be silly not to allude that we’re not being smarter and more efficient. But in this drive for efficiency, creativity still remains the most important factor in ROI. Creativity drives 50% of ROI. So what we’re doing it taking more time to test, to make sure that investments are in the asset deployment rather than the creation, and putting more people in the digital hubs that then becomes an overhead rather than a BMI [brand and marketing investment]. With U-Studio we have found the right balance, but it’s a daily discussion.”

As she looks to 2022, a significant growth opportunity comes in the form of the evolving relationship with long-standing retail partners. Tesco and Walmart – the biggest grocers in the UK and US respectively – have invested heavily in developing their own retail media offerings to rival the likes of Amazon. Spending media budgets on on-site advertising, search and branded content are opportunities that were fledgling when Braams stepped into the role.

“There’s a huge opportunity. It’s coming from everywhere. And what you’ve seen, specifically with the retailers Tesco and Walmart, is consumers using these channels more as search channels to get acquainted with new products. So we’re using these channels way more strategically. Not just to target lower funnel but also the upper funnel.

“You need to have a strategic approach to these channels. We have learned a bit over the last few years and what we’re getting better at is using tools to optimize media – using machine learning to make sure we’re investing where the consumers really are and are getting the message we want to send out.”

This will be all the more critical as Braams prepares for her next challenge – seeing the brand though the supply chain crisis. Chief executive Jope has warned that prices of its goods are increasing and Braams will need to ensure it remains front of mind when cash-strapped shoppers are faced with the rising bill.

Of course, the comms strategy will be vital and it will increasingly rely on U-Studio to make sure its getting the most out of its $7bn marketing spend, but Braams says she’s also encouraging her marketers to take a seat at the table when it comes to pricing discussions.

“The art of pricing is a big one for marketeers. We tend to think of it as list price increases, which is always at the discretion of the retailer – we don’t define prices. But there’s many levers you can pull and, thinking it through in the total revenue management model we have, it’s critical for marketeers to be part of that.”