Get with the Weed regime

Approaching 100 days into his job as CMO at Unilever, the man Martin Sorrell calls ’visionary’ is already revolutionising the company’s digital, sustainability and communication strategies. MaryLou Costa meets Keith Weed as he maps out the challenges ahead

Related articles

  • To read Keith Weed’s Q&A click here
  • To read Keith Weed’s responses to marketing experts questions click here

How is your new role different from that of your predecessor, Simon Clift?

The big difference is that my remit is both marketing and communications and I am now on the executive board. I think this is recognition of a more “joined up” world.

Historically, the Unilever brand sat in the marketing area but sat in the communications area. In an increasingly transparent world, the idea that you would have a team of people in one area talking to investors and another team talking to journalists is yesterday’s thinking.

What we need to do now is have a joined-up approach across all communications. We are seeing more companies moving towards combining marketing and communications and it’s a trend I think you will see grow.

How has the CMO role changed now that you have been appointed to the board?

Paul [Polman] is a very consumer-centric chief executive and has a real drive to put the customer at the heart of the business. My appointment to the board is more a recognition of his vision for Unilever. For me, this makes him a very powerful person to have in the boardroom with you. What he is looking for from me is leadership in that area and I am very pleased to do that.

Equally, I am responsible for sustainability, which is also new to this role. Reducing our environmental footprint requires marketers to innovate in new ways. How can marketing be joined up when we talk about sustainability and ethical products? By making marketing responsible for it.

Unilever had previously said it would recruit 30 new marketers in the UK this year. Has this been completed?

The UK business is indeed recruiting more marketers. I don’t know the stage it’s at, but we will always invest in key markets to attract new talent. We are expanding and recruiting in markets such as China, India and Brazil, as well as the UK and US. There is a feeling at times that everything is happening in the developing world, but that is not how we see it. The UK business is a vibrant one, and we want to build on that.

The Unilever corporate logo is now being used on individual product advertising. How successful has this been?

The Unilever brand has been featuring on all our advertising in the UK for the past year, as well as in the Netherlands and Brazil. We are in 178 countries so we will often pilot something and get an idea of how it has worked. The work we have done around the Unilever brand has been beneficial for all the individual product brands.

This reflects the whole approach to transparency the digital revolution has brought to all of us. Before, I think people were less able to find out about the company behind the brand. Now, they can. When the company behind the brand is more present [on advertising material], people feel reassured by it and individual product brands are fortified. So we are now expanding this into other markets.

Unilever plans to double its spend on digital this year. What particular areas will you be investing in?

People are saying you need a digital strategy and that’s wrong. You need a strategy for the digital world. We are in the middle of a digital revolution and we need to work out how best to engage consumers in that way. So, to me, the model of “paid, owned and earned” media has helped us organise how we invest accordingly: “paid” being anything from TV to print; “owned” being our own websites; and “earned” being how we engage consumers.

Whether we are going to invest more in one or another comes down to the countries and categories and who we are targeting. If we’re looking at India, we need to know what percentage of people in India are online. You need to know that if you’re going to engage with housewives in Shanghai, they are spending an average of three hours a day online. The category you are in will guide you to which strategy you should use.

How will you balance growing Unilever’s business in emerging and developed markets?

More than half our business is in the developing and emerging markets. The growth coming from emerging markets is massive, in China, India and Brazil. We are already well developed in these countries and we don’t want to squander that inheritance. We will grow these markets and our market share quickly.

But we also have massive businesses in the US, Europe and Japan and we would be mad to walk away from those. You have to fight harder again to grow share but you have to do it. There are different strategies in both kinds of markets.


1983-1987 Brand product manager roles, Elida Gibbs UK

1987-1992 Marketing director, Cheeseborough Ponds, Skin & Oral Care

1992-1995 Marketing director, Elida Faberge, France

1995-1998 Senior vice-president Global Hair & Oral Care

1998-2000 Executive chairman, Elida Faberge. Drove success of Lynx and Dove brands in the UK

2000-2005 Executive chairman, Lever Faberge. Key in implementing ‘Cloth World’ campaign for Comfort and ‘Dirt is Good’ campaign for laundry brands

2005-2010 Executive vice-president, global home care & hygiene, Unilever

Outside Unilever, Weed is a Fellow of the Marketing Society and, as an engineering graduate, a Fellow of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. He is also a non-executive director of Sun Products Corporation.

My last 24 hours

I’ve just come back from a 12-day trip to North America and then on to Cannes, so there was a lot of catching up to do back in London.

I started with a 7am phone call with Yuri Jain, the chief executive of our water business in India. At 8.45am I was with Richard Davies, my senior vice-president for consumer and market insight, to prepare for some sessions with our non-executive directors around consumer immersion. They are going to learn about our consumers and see some of the things we do to engage with them.

At 9.30 I met with Will Gardner, who leads our marketing academy, and Mike Polk, who is president of our food and home personal care category globally, to talk about return on marketing investment.

At 11am I did an interview with The Times, then at midday I spoke with Laura Klauberg in the US, who I have promoted to be the global SVP of media. We talked about how we were going to step up to the challenges that are ripe in digital.

At 4pm I met with Accenture, which we work with for some of our global marketing. At 6.30pm, I spoke with [our vice-president of agency relations] Paula Quazi about the construction of our agency reviews. The day ended with the retirement party of Steve Williams, our company secretary.

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