Why Unilever is turning to a content-led strategy

Posted by: Dominic Mills, CMA Consultant Editor

Toiletries-to-foods giant Unilever has added a corporate dimension to its content strategy with a multi-million pound deal with The Guardian and its new Guardian Labs unit. CMA consultant editor Dominic Mills looks at the rationale.

At first sight, Unilever and The Guardian look like an unlikely pair of bedfellows; the former is a giant multinational selling everything from toiletries to yellow fats (margarine to you and me) to ice-cream, locked into a corporate mission to ramp up its sales in higher-growth developing markets. In the past, it has been a target for Greenpeace action over de-forestation.

The latter is a left-leaning, independent-minded UK newspaper publisher favoured by the liberal elite and which likes nothing more than to expose wrong-doing by the establishment (ie Edward Snowden or giant multinationals pillaging the developing world).

So the news that the pair last month signed ‘a seven-figure’ deal, under which Unilever has signed up as sponsor The Guardian’s Sustainable Business section and  for whom the publisher’s Guardian Labs unit will produce branded content for it around that theme, might come as a bit of a surprise. (I do love the coyness of that ‘seven-figure’ deal sum though: it could be anything from £1,000,000 to £9,999,999. Come on you Guardianistas, let’s be fully transparent.)

But don’t be surprised. The pair is better matched than you might think.  

Think of Unilever as, in effect, a giant marketing machine. Innovation around its product portfolio is limited (sure, it can tweak the formulation of Dove shampoo or reduce the fat content of I Can’t Believe it’s not Butter but it’s not going to transform either’s fortunes overnight) and incremental.

However, what Unilever can do at a faster pace and with more reward is to innovate around its marketing.

And in recent years, it certainly has, especially in content. You might think content in and around mundane, everyday, household goods products is difficult. But the Dove Real Beauty campaign, in particular the ‘sketches’ work, proves that it is not only possible, but that it can significantly add to the brand’s value.

Inspired by that, Unilever has taken content-led marketing into other product areas. All Things Hair, for example, acts as an umbrella YouTube channel for Unilever’s various hair care brands. The channel features well-known video bloggers such as Zoella (who has 4m subscribers), who create content around tips and styles.   

Sustainability mission

This is all well and good for promoting individual brands. But Unilever also has a larger purpose, working across all brands and categories, which is its corporate sustainability mission. Now you can be as cynical as you like about this on the grounds that it is nothing more than ‘greenwash’ or an attempt to find a competitive advantage.

But there is no doubt that Unilever, which committed to sustainability in 2010 – perhaps in response to Greenpeace’s attacks – is throwing a lot of resource at it and senior executives like CEO Paul Polman are heavily invested on a personal level.

Once a corporation publicly embarks on a mission to be sustainable, you can’t pull back or change horses midstream without a significant loss of credibility, both with consumers and lobby groups. The reputational damage would be immense.

Two challenges

However, other than practising what it preaches, Unilever faces two challenges in order to demonstrate its sustainability credentials. One is to let the world know what it is doing. A corporate website, or microsite, the production of sustainability reports and audits, and nice videos, will only get you so far. What Unilever needs is a distribution mechanism.

As Hamish Priest, Unilever’s global media innovation manager, told a conference last month, “making expensive content that no-one sees is like building cathedrals in the desert. We have to consider distribution as important as the creative development.”

And that is exactly what it has bought with The Guardian. As the paper points out, two thirds 40m-plus global traffic is from outside the UK, and it is especially big in the US and amongst English-language speakers in the emerging world. Guess what two of the key audiences for Unilever’s sustainability message might be? American consumers and opinion formers both in the US and the emerging markets.

For a company like Unilever with a global audience, that made The Guardian a reasonably straight-forward choice – certainly given that, The New York Times apart, most other newspaper publishers lack both global reach (you couldn’t imagine this working on the MailOnline) and the right editorial credentials. Perhaps the only other serious competitor might have been the Huffington Post.

The second challenge is credibility. Again, this is where The Guardian steps in, both in terms of the actual content production – the content will be produced by journalists on the Lab’s 130-strong team – and as host.

Like Unilever, The Guardian also has a clear corporate and editorial commitment to sustainability with well-known commentators like George Monbiot, so there is a clear affinity between the two and an implicit purchase of The Guardian’s values by Unilever.

At least that is the plan. All content requires relevance and credibility, but none more so than in the sphere of sustainability, where every word, picture or video will be picked over by the likes of Greenpeace and other NGOs, not to mention Monbiot.

No doubt Unilever could produce its own content on sustainability – and it does – but it would lack the journalistic rigour and sensibility the Guardian Lab team should bring.

You can see the first fruits of the deal here.

It’s interesting for a number of reasons: one, because it’s fairly low-key – no-one is shoving it down the readers’ throats – but at the same time Unilever’s presence is clearly marked; two, because – so far at any rate – it is a traditional diet of feature-led content and video; and three, because it is more or less neutral – in other words, it is more information-based than self-aggrandising or selling. Its role is to mark out Unilever’s territory as a corporation concerned about, and active in, its own contribution to sustainability.

What it isn’t – at least in my opinion – is native advertising. I’d define native advertising as branded content that blends more or less seamlessly with straightforward editorial and with a tendency to ambush the reader. This, by contrast, is self-contained and while it will no doubt be pushed out, isn’t likely to be found other than by readers with a specific interest. And if, by some chance, it is – then it is clearly labelled as an ‘advertisement feature’.

This may be just as well, given the ferocious debate about the deceptive nature of native advertising sparked by…you’ve guessed…Guardian columnist Bob Garfield late last month.

Follow the comments, and you will see that a number of readers take The Guardian to task precisely for, in their view, this hypocritical deal with Unilever.

But not in my view. I don’t doubt that there will be tricky moments when The Guardian will have to demonstrate its editorial independence as and when Unilever’s sustainability credentials are challenged.

Unilever too will be acutely aware of this issue, but its willingness to, so to speak, put its head in the lion’s den, is an indication of its commitment and its credibility.

The article was published on Huffington Post, click to view

Posted in CMA blog
17thMar 2014

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