Yesterday I went down to Blackfriars to meet with Santiago Gowland, Unilever’s vice president for sustainable development, with global responsibility for the Unilever brand. Joining us were Richard Cox of Salt, a PR company, and Duncan Williamson from SAP. I should say at this point that James Farrar, SAP’s vp for corporate citizenship, introduced me to Santiago a few months back. James is a bit of a visionary in his own right, but that’s a story for another day.
The Role Of The Brand
We were there to talk about the role of a brand in these uncertain times. A brand is not just a product. A brand is something that the market, not the company owns. A brand can be force for good, or it can just sell stuff. Ideally it does both. My work in sustainability this year has convinced me that marketing and PR and global communications and all that corporate stuff is absolutely essential in tackling the big challenges. What we need to do now is that ensure that the brands we engage with listen to us. But we also need to listen to them.
Hygiene Factors, Broccoli and Ice cream
Right now, honestly, people at Fortune 500 companies are sticking their neck out when it comes to green issues. Its easy to complain about greenwash PR, but go to a conference not specifically focused on sustainability and see how many people actually attend a session labeled green. Of course what matters is that the right people are listening. But again that’s a different story. Right now green is an outlier, not a vote winner, its a question, not a product or lifestyle decision. None of us want to make sacrifices. None of us likes to change our behavior. But the Corporate marketing machine can change behaviours. And that is what we need to do. Jason Matusow of Microsoft describes the core basics of any major problem as “hygiene factors”. Thomas Otter at Gartner would talk about Broccoli and Ice-cream.
Creating Food From Community Interaction
Which brings us neatly back to Unilever. You could see that Santiago and Richard were visibly excited when I told them about contributions to the SAP Developer Network points system triggering a significant payment to the UN’s World Food Program. What makes the story so amazing to me at least is that it started with a blog post on SDN by a guy called Nigel James, who doesn’t even work at SAP. Corporate picked up and ran with this idea from the grassroots. Perfect. The holy grail of alignment between community engagement and social responsibility. Successful brands need to be platforms, architectures of participation if you like.
The Old Twitter Trick
During lunch I thought why not try some show, rather than just some tell, so I took out my trusty N95 and asked my Twitter community (which is now more than 3000 people), What does the Unilever brand stand for?
I sat there for a few minutes, hoping I wasn’t going to be embarrassed by a lack of response. And sure enough you came through- like a fire hose not a trickle. One way to check out the responses is probably with a twitter search of monkchips + unilever. I also favourited as many responses as I could see.
The very first response came from another Gartner analyst, Andreas Bitterer
bitterer: @monkchips Unilever itself doesn’t stand for much, but its many brands carry a lot of weight and are well recognized.
Clive gave us a bit of well-intentioned snark
positivechurn: @monkchips “Unilever” a brand? tell them to stop being silly and not to waste any more money on fluffy nonsense corporate logos
Patrick gave the most comment response- meh!
patrickf: @monkchips Which one? They own a ton of brands. Or rather: Unilever stands for nothing. It generates no expectations with me.
LloydDavis: @monkchips – unilever==a mishmash of microbranded commodities vaguely connected by cleanliness
Like I say – check out the search.
The twitter conversation went on for hours after i left the meeting.
But I can hear my son waking up and its Saturday – job one in sustainability is looking after your family. Suffice to say that Twitter was a great proof point of the arguments I was making, and I am hopeful Unilever be a client in the new year…