Unilever: ‘Sustainability marketing is biggest challenge’

Unilever’s main marketing challenge is to persuade consumers to change to more sustainable behaviours, according to its CMO Keith Weed, who admitted that the company has not made as much progress in this area as it would like in the first year of its sustainability strategy.


His comments came as the FMCG firm, which owns brands including Flora, Dove and Lynx, hosted an event to outline the progress made in the year since the launch of its 10-year Sustainable Living Plan.

The Sustainable Living Plan was introduced last year as a way to embed sustainability into all areas of the organisation. It includes commitments to halve the environmental impact of products and source 100% of agricultural raw materials in a sustainable way. 

Marketing is at the forefront of Unilever’s sustainability agenda, which is the reason that as chief marketing officer, Weed also heads up sustainability and communications. He concedes, however, that Unilever has not yet found an effective way to communicate environmental messages to a mass consumer audience yet.

He adds that UK consumers are “still a long way off” from purchase decisions being motivated on the environment alone.

It found that an advertising campaign for Persil’s Small & Mighty product that focused on the environmental benefits of less packaging and less transport impact alone, did not get a “significant and broad based purchase preference” needed for a mass market product.

Instead, marketing for the brand focuses on the product quality.

Speaking to Marketing Week at the event, Weed said: “The big challenge is getting people to engage more on sustainability and environment. The tricky thing is that only a small number of consumers are motivated to make purchase decisions on that alone.”

“The trouble is that the environment is somebody else’s problem and people feel powerless. That’s why with our corporate brand we’ve been focussing on small actions and big difference. We need to use our broad consumer base to say ‘you individually are making small actions but you multiplied by 100 million – that’s a big difference’. That’s the way we’re going to try to engage people in this.”

“As a consumer goods business, the biggest part of our footprint is consumers using our products, through washing clothes and hot showers. Marketing really has to step up in this area and should be a real champion of the sustainability agenda. If marketing leads from the front not only will they provide better solutions for the company but better solutions for the world.”

“[Behaviour change] is not easy stuff but it’s exciting new territory and an area were going to have to really embrace if we’re going to make a meaningful difference.”

For example, Unilever has developed Comfort One Rinse laundry detergent to reduce the water needed to hand wash clothes in developing countries, but has found that consumers have taken longer to adopt new behaviours and actually use less water and so there is more to do to educate consumers in how they use products to reduce the environmental impact.

Weed also confirmed that Unilever plans to launch its first consumer facing campagin under its corporate brand to promote its approach to sustainability.

Despite the challenges in changing consumer behaviour, CEO Paul Polman says that Unilever has made “excellent” progress in other areas and exceeded some of its targets on more tangible goals such as sustainable sourcing and nutrition.

He cited a 68% increase in share price last year as evidence that putting sustainability at the heart of business strategy is financial viable.

He added that Unilever’s brands that have adopted the Sustainable Living Plan are growing faster than the average brand that has been slower to move on sustainability.

Weed also confirmed that Unilever would lacunh its

Watch Marketing Week’s video interview with Unilever CMO Keith Weed here.

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