Why Unilever Unites Its Portfolio of 400+ Brands Around One Core Value

October 22, 2015

Unilever is an organization built around a strong culture and employer brand. Pretty impressive, considering their scope and size.

After all, the conglomerate employs more than 170,000 people in all corners of the world under the guise of more than 400 different brands. They sell everything from Hellmann’s mayonnaise to Knorr instant pea soup to Lipton iced tea.

With so many different products and so many different brands touching so many different markets, it would be easy for each one to have their own distinct culture and marketing, with little overlap in-between. And yet, that isn’t the case, as every brand in Unilever is constructed around one key tenet: purpose.

“We’re proof that HR can have a really special relationship with marketing and vice-versa,” Unilever Vice President of Global Talent and Resourcing Stephen Lochhead said at his keynote Wednesday at Talent Connect London. “At Unilever, we have a really simple philosophy: when you bring people and brands together under the banner of purpose, ordinary people can achieve some extraordinary things.”

In their keynote, Lochhead and Unilever Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Keith Weed discussed the importance of having one core principal – in their case, working towards a greater purpose – be the central tenet of both marketing and talent acquisition. They also dove into why they put so much emphasis on working to that greater purpose, which at Unilever revolves around sustainable living.

“People always ask me, what is the business case for sustainable living,” Weed said. “And I always tell them I’d love to see the business case for the alternative. What is the business case for destroying our planet and the society around us?”

  • unilever CMO

Keith Weed, Unilever's Chief Marketing and Communications Officer on stage at Talent Connect London

How Unilever emphasizes purpose in their brands

When Unilever says they focus on purpose, specifically they mean working towards their sustainable living plan they created in 2010. That plan has three goals:

  • Improve health and wellbeing of more than 1 billion people
  • Halve the environmental impact of their products
  • Source 100 percent of raw agricultural materials sustainably (in 2010, it was 7 percent; currently it’s up to 55 percent)

Want some examples? Well, there are plenty, such as what Unilever brand Ben & Jerry’s does daily. But Weed signaled out two soap brands Unilever owns – Dove and Lifebuoy – as perfect examples of infusing purpose into their brand.

For Lifebuoy, Unilever found that two million children in the third world under the age of 5 die each year because they don’t wash their hands often enough, causing them to catch infections like diarrhea and pneumonia. So, the company sought to fix that by providing education to areas most affected on the importance of children regularly washing their hands.

Here’s a video highlighting their efforts:

Dove Soap, conversely, took on another topic: how a person’s beauty should be a source of confidence, not a source of anxiety. They even worked with Twitter to Tweet at women who were Tweeting concerns about their beauty, and encouraging them to “#speakbeautiful” about themselves instead.

So far, these efforts by Unilever have not only helped the world, but helped the business as well. The Unilever brands that have fully implemented this sustainable living plan have grown twice as fast as ones that haven’t, Weed said.

How this mission relates to talent

unilever head of talent acquisition

Unilever Vice President of Global Talent and Resourcing Stephen Lochhead

This idea of creating purpose-driven companies doesn’t just help marketing and sales, it helps Unilever recruit and inspire great talent as well, Lochhead said. By having their products centered around improving the world - instead of just the company’s bottom line – employees at Unilever care more and accomplish more.

“We like to dream big at Unilever,” Lochhead said. “But we can only achieve that by going after what’s inspirational, at what gets people out of bed every day.”

That means making jobs less about the what and the how – what the person will be doing, how much money they’ll make – and instead about the why, as in why they are doing what they do each do, Lochhead said. The ultimate goal is to link employees’ passions with their jobs, turning them into “citizens of Unilever” who love and care about their work each day.

Lochhead went on to discuss how companies “don’t control their employer brand, and never did.” Instead, their employees do, and what your people are saying about your company will dictate how prospects feel about it as well.

So, the best way to build an employer brand is creating a place where people are passionate about their work and talk glowingly about their employer, he said.

Two items to take from Unilever’s presentation

Unilever touched on two items in their keynote that’s applicable to any HR or recruiting team in any company, regardless of size or industry.

The first is the importance of taking a holistic approach to your talent efforts. Rather than HR and recruiting focusing on one thing and marketing focusing on another, Unilever has all of its brands and all of its departments focused on one thing: purpose through sustainable living.

That makes the message clear, so you are bringing in the right people who will stay engaged at your company. The more specific you make your vision, and the more widespread its adopted throughout your company, the more successful all of your efforts will become – particularly your recruiting efforts.

The second is the importance of making the work at your company, as Lochhead perfectly said, not about the what – what an employee will do – or the how – how much they’ll be paid. Instead, it’s about the why – why your work matters, and detail how it’ll improve the world.

Unilever has managed to do that with companies that sell ice cream and hand soap, hardly things that pop into your mind when you think about changing the world. Surely, you can do it for whatever problem your company solves as well.

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