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Marketing and Comms
Marketing for Social Change:
How to Profitably Use Your Brand Power as a Force for Good

Today the ethical consumer market hovers between 10 and 20 percent. These numbers haven’t moved much since the term was first popularized 25 years ago. Yet market researchers such as Edelman and Ipsos Reid tell us that more than 80 percent of Canadian consumers want companies to champion social causes, lead social change and stand for something. Companies that figure out how to tap into this latent demand for corporate social purpose stand to win big.

One company that continues to lead the way is Unilever. This British–Dutch multinational consumer goods company seems to epitomize the qualities of a transformational and social purpose company. Top-rated by sustainability experts and marketers around the world, Unilever further enjoys the enviable status of being the third most admired employer on LinkedIn.

So, what is the company doing right?

Unilever builds social purpose into its brand strategy. With 400 brands — 14 of which are worth more than €1 billion — the company recognized the impact they could have as a force for social good. Embedded in each of top brands such as Dove, Lipton and Lifebuoy is a social purpose strategy intended to address solutions to the world’s social and environmental problems. And this is paying off in the markets, with financial analysts deeming Unilever a good long-term investment.

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Our research shows that Unilever is beginning to incorporate transformational (4.0) qualities within their marketing strategies (see above figure).

Our scan of Unilever’s “sustainability brand” reveals the company is pursuing a comprehensive approach to building social purpose into the universal company and its product brands, where everything they do tells the story of a company whose purpose is “to make sustainable living commonplace.”

Unilever is a front-runner in embedding sustainability into its core brand where it is included in these brand assets and investments:


Sustainable Living Plan drives marketing and brand management

Unilever’s social purpose marketing journey began about 10 years ago with the development of a brand imprint strategy. The company’s leadership realized that branding had to go beyond building customer loyalty and trust to become an aspirational force for social good. This thinking resulted in the 2010 launch of Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan in which “making sustainable living commonplace” was built into the company’s core purpose, marketing and brand management strategy. Examples abound throughout its brand portfolio:

  • Lifebuoy soap has the potential to teach one billion people how to stop the spread of disease by washing their hands effectively;
  • Flora and Becel, plant-based margarine products, encourage customers to be proactive about their heart health;
  • Lipton betters the lives of farm workers while improving the land on which they cultivate the tea, through the purchase of more Rainforest Alliance-certified tea.

Unilever brands are tasked with changing consumer behaviour for the better and inspiring social good while driving profitable business growth. The company is building its social leadership story into all stakeholder touchpoints and aligning its social brand across all of its assets and relationships. In so doing, it has become a “storydoing” rather than a “storytelling” company, using direct action to complement paid advertising to communicate its brand message.

While most marketers agree purpose needs to be part of a successful brand-building strategy, they are less certain how to get there. Unilever hasn’t let uncertainty hold it back. So, how can other companies leverage their brands to do good and help solve problems in society? That’s a provocative question for creative directors and marketing VPs.

Engaging stakeholders in this quest can deepen customer and brand loyalty and generate sales. Do your customers believe society is better off if they do business with your company? Does your brand allow them to tap into and express their social motivations? If not, it’s time for a marketing breakthrough.

This post first appeared on LinkedIn on June 23, 2015.