You're probably familiar with a number of Unilever's various consumer products brands, from food names like Hellmann's mayonnaise, Lipton tea, and Slim-Fast diet drinks, to its major presence in personal care (Dove, Axe, Pond's). It's kinda like Procter & Gamble only it grew up in Europe and built its empire on an aggregation of locally powerful brand names in each of the countries in which it operates versus P&G's classic topdown strategy of building its global brand names in many of the same countries.

Its CMO made headlines last week at the American Association of Advertising Agency's annual meeting when he declared that Unilever's brands must be made into "media properties" and that they would experiment with creating entertainment and gaming content. He reportedly took 20 company executives on a tour of Silicon Valley technology platforms last spring and plans another visit this month, and has already cut new deals with Facebook and Apple.

Clearly, this guy is lost, and his brands are in dire need of outside help.

I've often remarked that nobody wakes up in the morning hoping to have a conversation with their toothpaste brand, and I think that extends to underarm deodorant and sandwich spread, too. Social media represent the greatest challenge to brands because they allow consumers to talk with one another, not to the imaginary constructs of brands -- which really don't exist the way people do -- and few consumer products companies have come to terms with how this blows up their old thinking about branding. They need to change the what they talk about, not just hope that the how of delivering the same old creative fantasies will make marketing more effective. It won't, and Unilever need look no further than P&G to see evidence that lots of social noise doesn't replace the branding qualities that old media used to deliver (the Old Spice YouTube campaign that has entered industry canon didn't do anything for sales, and the arguments that it promoted the brand are as weak as the company's ability to maintain premium pricing for any of its similar-promoted brand names).

So Weed's team will produce lots of wonderfully experimental campaigns (remember that it's more important to dive into social media than necessarily have a clear idea of the size of the pool, water temperature, or your own ability to swim). He'll  get lots of nice headlines in trade magazine, and his agencies might win awards for the stuff. But I'd wager that the noise won’t sell any Unilever products.

What should the company consider instead if it wants to actually sell products and have loyal consumers instead of followers? Here are three thought-starter ideas:

  • Redefine & Strengthen the Chinese Walls -- The fact that Unilever could support women with its Dove campaign while simultaneously supporting their objectification as sex objects with its Axe brand revealed the emptiness of both brand positions. Why not be the first big consumer products company that really figures it out and can make the case that its brands are authentic (on whatever positions they take)? This isn't just a marketing challenge; could there be a different way to operationally structure its brand management, so instead of "home" and "consumer" products it grouped them by, say, buyers and/or regions? Could that let it embrace more authentic claims? Might it sell more thereby?
  • Don't Stop at Internal Structure by User -- There's no benefit to buying mayo and soap from the same company because they're different brands, only why couldn't there be an incentive and/or payoff for doing so? Maybe certain brands belong together when they share the same target consumers? Why not invent the industry's first cross-brand marketing and relationship strategies? I have no idea how they'd to it (if it were easy it would have happened long ago) and it would have to be much more than a cross-selling plan. Are there reasons why we should care that one company owns a number of brands we could buy?
  • Adapt Everything around Marketing -- Ultimately, there's a limit to what you can say about soap. No creative idea or interactive campaign can overcome that fact; there's just no enough there there with which to play, and lurking just behind every consumer product brand is the fact that the world really wouldn't really miss all the choices that brands create for us. So could Unilever's brands play with other variables -- performance, packaging, distribution, replenishment, pricing -- to establish unique relationships with its consumers? These are the oldest tools in the marketing toolkit but they're also the most effective. They're just harder to figure out than buying some high-falutin new media package from some startup or creative agency.

Like I said, that was just a start. But wouldn't it be cool if Weed and his braintrust were approaching Unilever's challenge with less babble about new media this-or-that, and instead talked more about redefining the fundamentals of the company’s operations? Seems like better business ideas would be easy to communicate on social platforms, and they'd come across as far more legitimate than any of the made-up content that might come out of the marketing department.

What do you think?

(Image credit: Unilever logo)

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