James Governor's Monkchips

What Does Unilever Mean? A Tweet Story

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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.

Lloyd said:

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…


  1. James — thanks for the compliment & coming from you an honour even though completely false.
    Interesting point here about brand and marketing push on sustainability.

    First – the sustainability elephant in the living room is consumption levels. Marketing practice is to cajool us to consume so what we consume and how we dispose is a really central issue. Unilever is doing great work for example in innovating on packaging and collaboration w Wal Mart in particular. But also teaching and messaging and fulfilling needs for more sustainable consumption is important. Assuring us for example that clothes can be washed at low temperatures. (I note that Levis are saying jeans dont need to be washed and we are all washing them way too much already — a dilemma or innovation maybe for Unilever).

    Second – differentiation, I always have had mixed feelings about the differentiation created by the Body Shop and Ben & Jerrys in times past. Its as if these brands could only be uniquely successful as clearly differentiated ethical brands because others were not which is not an ideal sustainability outcome in my opinion.

    Today there are any number of product labels & certifications from Rainforest Alliance, FairTrade etc etc. Its easy for a consumer to be bamboozled. We saw that come to a head this year with the voluntary offset market in the UK. So trust and clear standards are key for the long term and Unilever can and does lead here. Without this we risk having such labels and initiatives dominated only by marketing and communications without the back end standrads and processes ever being properly embedded. Consumers might eventually tire of the concept OR lose trust due to the lack of standard and come to teh opinion they are being asked to pay a green/ethical premium for not much at all.

    So I agree the social & cultural potential impact that Unilever can have just through sheer force of message is huge. Unilever can lead so that well designed standards and processes are lifting across the entire market and sustainability is not only communicated but embedded. Consumers then can actually transform their consumption habits and that the sustainability brand promise is fulfilled and perceived to do so.

  2. In my view, all companies should be socially responsible because all companies are part of society. Corporate behavior has a direct effect on society as a whole, and corporations are not nebulous entities, they are made up real breathing human beings with families, so it’s in everyone’s interest to exhibit behavior that helps society while at the same time enabling them to make money and keep those jobs.

    It’s interesting that you use Unilever as your example because they own the Ben & Jerry’s brand, the poster child for corporate responsibility, even today years after Unilever purchased it. If you take a trip up to Waterbury, VT to the Ben & Jerry’s factory, you will find a monument to responsible capitalism. It’s a great place in a beautiful setting and your son will have a blast.

    I still associate Ben & Jerry’s as a great product and a great brand even though they are owned by a multinational corporation. Unilever, itself, not so much.

    In the end, I think it advances the company’s brand to be socially responsible and to take its role as a member of society seriously. If ultimately it is about brand reputation, it starts with great products, but it’s also about what you stand for as an organization.

    Ron Miller
    By Ron Miller Blog

  3. […] for instance is using Twitter as a crowdsourcing research resource. Recently that led him to pen this interesting piece about sustainability and Unilever: During lunch I thought why not try some show, rather than just some tell, so I took out my trusty […]

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