Me And My Brand: Sharon MacLeod and Unilever

Living inside marketing that's become a mission, not a campaign

Living inside marketing that’s become a mission, not a campaign

There is an awkwardness when we meet at Unilever Canada’s head office in Toronto. Her eyes exude warmth and the smile is welcoming, but Sharon MacLeod’s right arm reluctantly offers a tentative hand shake, the reason for which quickly becomes apparent. “We’re the kind of organization where we’re more likely to hug each other than shake hands,” MacLeod explains, suggesting the firm’s European heritage may also be a contributing factor. “I just think we’re more emotional. We are a feelings-based organization.”

Hugging isn’t exactly standard practice in the corporate world, and it would be easy to dismiss it as quirk were it not also so totally on brand. One of nearly 175,000 foot soldiers in a massive global conglomerate whose products are used by a staggering two billion-plus consumers a day, MacLeod lives Unilever’s core, hug-worthy brand values to help people feel good, look good and get more out of life. And that adds up to a lot of marketing—and hugging. You see the Unilever logo more now on products and in ads, and I started our conversation by asking MacLeod what that brand means to her and her team.

MacLeod: Most people, or at least a lot of people, don’t know what a Unilever is. Even students in university don’t necessarily make the connection between the brands and the company. But when you’re inside Unilever, its personality is extremely strong: we are an organization that values sustainability, both social and environmental. So when we’re developing a plan we’ll always ask ourselves how the Sustainable Living Plan fits into it and if there is anything that concerns us. We don’t necessarily think of it as branding. It’s sort of a compass.

When it comes to growth, personal care products lead the way at Unilever. The segment accounts for 35% of Unilever sales and, due to profit margins that are roughly double those in refreshment/beverages and three times those in home care/cleaning, for 42 cents of every dollar of prof t. Talk to the masters of marketing education today—folks like Alan Middleton at Schulich and Ken Wong at Queen’s—and you get a sense of Unilever having emerged in the past 10 years as an anti-P&G. The latter will give you cleaner than clean, scientifically proven protection from dandruff and 30% more bounciness in your hair. Unilever? The unwritten mission is that it doesn’t sell its products. Instead, it sells what those products enable or, when successful in a bigger sense, empower us to do. I tested that on MacLeod.

MacLeod: Product performance is critically important. Being at parity or superior to P&G is really important to us. But I think where you are right is that we believe in the people side of it. A Tide [P&G] ad is more likely to have a side-by-side, cold-water wash demo or a kid at a science fair. We’re more likely to be storytellers and connect with mom as a person. If you look at the Sunlight [Unilever, 1998] campaign, it talks about a mom’s desire to have her kids looking clean and tidy because it’s a reflection of them as a mom. But she also wants to be the kind of mom who encourages her kids to learn through play. The tagline, which came from Canada [the now-defunct Ammirati Puris Lintas] was “Go ahead, get dirty.”

Unilever went ahead and got a surge in market share, extending the approach to Persil globally with “Dirt is Good.” Yet, while this and, of course, the work on Dove Campaign for Real Beauty are seminal campaigns in today’s anti-P&G Unilever culture, the company has also kept its foot in the traditional CPG marketing camp. There is a steady tension between sticking to metrics and calculated planning versus loosening up and chasing the big idea. (You might say P&G has been stealing a bit from Unilever’s playbook with Febreze. It started off marketing the product scientifically as a solution to problem odours, but really made its breakthrough after testing revealed consumers preferred to be sold on a product to complement their high hygenic standards. After that, ads started showing consumers keeping things smelling fresh with Febreze only after they had cleaned their houses spotless.)

It’s easy to draw parallels between the Sunlight and Dove Real campaigns, as each has positioned Unilever as an empowering brand. Both are also great examples of how Canada can be competitive and lead as a pioneer within the Byzantine structure of a global giant and of why there is a widely held view that agencies would always choose Unilever as a client over other CPGs.

MacLeod: It’s a bit of a love fest with agencies. We love ideas. What they’ve done for our business is just incredible, so we value that relationship and trust them so much that it’s like they’re a part of our company. I think the very best work we’ve ever had was because of those relationships. It seems silly, but how are you going to get great work if they don’t want to do it? That sort of thing, you can’t deliver that for a pay cheque.

Ken Wong argues that part of being an anti-P&G is that there is added risk in locking in brand identities under a unifying, enabling message, especially if it has struck a deep personal chord like Dove. Love is a strong emotion, but it can bite back if the creative magic runs out, or the company misreads a change in its target consumers. Indeed, Dove has faced criticism and is struggling to retain the goodwill it built up with the early Campaign for Real Beauty creative.

That platform will turn 10 next year and given all the awards, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact the Unilever team in Toronto showed its appetite for risk when it went against the grain with a grassroots innovation, rather than a top-down execution. Longtime Ogilvy & Mather Toronto creative boss Janet Kestin remembers that no one at either Ogilvy or Unilever head offices really had a clue what the team was up to with the 2006 Dove Evolution video, which will go down as one of the best $135,000 investments in advertising.

Anyone involved with Dove is quick to credit Silvia Lagnado, global marketer for Unilever, as the dreamer who set the bar high by asking creatives to answer the unreasonable question: “What if a bar of soap could change the world?” Canada answered. It was a defining moment for the culture of the firm in many ways. The public remembers the advertising, but internally those involved in the campaign also remember the spirit and inspiration from Lagnado’s boldness in filming secret interviews about self-image with the daughters of the conglomerate’s board members as a tactic to win them over to the strategy.

MacLeod: When they saw their own daughters at eight years of age saying “I wish my stomach was flatter,” they got it. That was where the idea was born. I’d love to say it was mine. It wasn’t. I think what Canada did is we got behind it before anybody else in the world. So we took money from Dove Hair and Dove Bar and we called up enough to launch Campaign for Real Beauty and it instantly took off. I think women harbour these negative feelings and we flipped it so they got positive feelings. We showed everybody how it was exploding, then the U.S. grudgingly came along and eventually Europe.

The Axe Effect: MacLeod is patient, but you can almost hear her eyes straining to roll back as she wonders why the media never wants to talk about the company’s efforts in marketing free-range eggs in Hellman’s mayonnaise

In her 15-plus years at Unilever, MacLeod, who was promoted to vice-president of marketing in January 2012, has been able to ride a culture of pioneering spirit and agency love in Toronto that many would trace directly to Peter Elwood, who shaped both Lipton and Lever Brothers prior to their merger, and to a core of leaders including Geoff Craig, now at the Heart and Stroke Foundation, Rob Guenette, CEO of Taxi, and Ian Gordon, now running President’s Choice at Loblaw. “They passed the torch to Sharon,” says Kestin. MacLeod tries to set big goals and, in a first-or-better strategy, challenges her marketing team to break ground or raise the bar if they are adapting campaigns from other countries.

MacLeod: We will be originators sometimes and at other times we’ll take a best practice and we’ll take it to the next level. There is very good reason to create something and then share it, something like the Dove 3D billboards [Girls Unstoppable is designed to increase dialogue between parents, mentors and girls about the importance of physical activity and not quitting over a negative body image], which was completely replicated in Australia.

Each time I return to Axe in our discussions, MacLeod is patient, but you can almost hear her eyes straining to roll back as she wonders why the media never wants to talk about the company’s efforts in marketing free-range eggs in Hellman’s mayonnaise or how 39% of the world’s leading tea seller’s production is now Rainforest Alliance Certified, or the firm’s global efforts to create gender equity in management.

The reality is that Axe (or Lynx, as it is known in many countries) ads stir up controversy and I am interested in hearing more from her about how the brand positioning, with overtly sexist stereotypes, fits into the messaging at the same firm that markets Dove. Her simple answer, echoing the Sunlight and Dove experiences, is we’re talking self-esteem again—only this time it’s young males who need help with confidence in attracting women.

I’ve got teenaged boys, but I’ll leave it to the colourful John Hegarty, whose firm Bartle Bogle Hegarty has held the Axe account for years, to describe the teenaged male hormonal predicament most succinctly: “They stink.” The brand’s appeal is simple and it’s grounded in confidence, not a scientific approach to hygiene. “You’re not going to lock down that tail if you smell like a hog on heat… this is the dating game and if the game isn’t played with humour and style you’ll look as if you’re trying too hard. And that’s not cool.” No one had to go out and interview the Unilever board’s sons to gain that insight, right?

MacLeod: We knew what that was. The secret recipe is that girls have to like it as much as the guys do. It’s the only way the advertising works. That’s why I personally feel good about it. No one believes that Axe is real. The best ads are the ones that I would laugh out loud at, like Nothing Beats an Astronaut. I know that if we tip over and become too something—too sexual, too anything—girls don’t like it and the guys don’t like it.

You could call that smart marketing, but it’s clear that part of what makes MacLeod tick is a sense that great marketing like Dove locks in on values that transcend the marketing itself. I have to wonder, now that she’s connected with consumers on a deeper level on that brand and issue, what would happen if a new corporate vision comes along and she’s asked to take the brand in a completely different direction.

MacLeod: When we embarked on Dove, people didn’t really believe us. They thought it was just a campaign. Early on, the media would say, “If this doesn’t work you’re just going to go off and do something else.” This is actually what we believe in our heart of hearts. So you don’t go on and jump on another train.

When I work on Dove, it’s a part of who I am as a person. It’s not a campaign. So the idea of walking away from it or changing directions… I would just need to quit, I guess. I’ve become an expert in self-esteem because of Dove, and I’m on a personal mission.

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 11 issue of Marketing

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