‘There’s no question it’s right’: Unilever marketing chief Conny Braams silences purpose critics
In January, Unilever found itself in the firing line of investor Terry Smith. He slammed the FMCG-giant for being “obsessed with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on the fundamentals of the business”. Now, for the first time, its chief marketing and digital officer has responded.
Hellman’s ‘Make Taste Not Waste’ was criticized by investor Terry Smith
Terry Smith’s dissatisfaction at Unilever’s commitment to see virtually all its brands have a purpose – and communicate that to consumers – was delivered in an annual letter on January 11.
“A company which feels it has to define the purpose of Hellmann’s mayonnaise has in our view clearly lost the plot,” he wrote. “The Hellmann’s brand has existed since 1913 so we would guess that by now consumers have figured out its purpose (spoiler alert – salads and sandwiches).”
The comments hit headlines globally, but chief executive Alan Jope largely ignored the naysayers and let the financial performance of its most purpose-led brands do the talking. Now, chief marketing and digital officer Conny Braams has hit back at critics of the plan Unilever has gone all-in on.
Speaking to The Drum, the World Federation of Advertisers’ Global Marketer of the Year says the strategy is working and that it has no intention to curb its purpose agenda in the face of criticism from the likes of Smith.
“There is no question in our minds this is the right way to go and to continue on this journey,“ says Braams. “Purpose is one of our levers for success. First of all, it’s truly an accelerator of growth – not just from a correlation perspective but causation. But it is not a replacement for a good product and that’s where it sometimes goes wrong. Brands are chosen for their value and values. It starts with value and you need fantastic products – products that are delivering superiority and quality against the best price. And if you deliver that, then values come on top of it as an accelerator.”
Pointing to Hellman’s and Dove, which are each up 11% and 8% respectively in 2021, she says: “They have been delivering superb growth and are brands based on purpose. So for us there is no question, the business case is clear – purpose drives brand power and brand power drives market share and that drives growth. A business that isn’t a force for good at certain moments will not have reason to be any more.“
Back in 2019 when he took the reins as chief executive, Jope said he wanted all 400 of its product lines to have a purpose and “stand for something“, and that those that didn’t would be disposed of. ”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.”
Asked about where Unilever is on that journey, Braams admits she “can’t put a number on it”, but stresses that change is happening from its smallest to its largest brands. “What we have found is that 60% of our turnover is coming from brands where consumers are telling us they see how it’s making a positive contribution. That’s the number I want to chase. That’s the index we’re driving.”
Readying for a new marketing model
Soon, the job of marketing brand purpose will fall into new hands. Unilever is preparing for an overhaul to its organizational structure that will see five new category managers put in place. They will lead beauty and wellbeing, personal care, home care, nutrition and ice-cream, taking charge of everything from the strategy to the execution.
“It’s a big change for Unilever to be organized in this way,” says Braams. “The real reason we want to do it is to create more speed and agility. Consumers are changing rapidly, new channels are coming up and competition is coming fast. So we’re stopping the organization working in a matrix between geographies and categories and making sure that if you’re responsible for strategy then you take it all the way to execution.”
Braams’s role within Unilever remains the same, but she will act as more of a guiding presence to these category managers as they make the call on where investment should be directed, helping them connect the dots to the other parts of the business. The groundwork that has been put into establishing each brand’s purpose will be helpful in allowing them work out what to focus on, she says.
“I’ll bring the outside in and make sure we’re on top of the trends that we’re seeing. I’ll make sure the business groups are acutely aware of the latest in gaming, influencer marketing, the metaverse, and making sure we still benefit from the one Unilever scale and capabilities while also allowing the differences needed in these groups.”
Unilever’s new model is set to come into play in June.