Unilever to increase spend on digital shopper marketing after proving display ROI

Project between Unilever, Aimia, Sainsbury’s, i2c, Nielsen and the IAB aimed to quantify the impact of online display advertising on FMCG sales and brand awareness.

Maille is one of the Unilever brands taking part in the project.

Unilever is planning to shift more of its shopper marketing budget for its homecare division into digital display after taking part in a study that has helped it prove the ROI of spending money online.

The first phase of a year-long research project between Aimia, Sainsbury’s, Nielsen, i2c and the IAB involved testing digital display advertising for three Unilever brands – Persil, Magnum and Maille – and two Nestle brands – Nescafe and Haagen Dazs. The ads were served programmatically on mainstream sites such as the Guardian and Mail Online over a six-week period using customer insight data from i2c to allow the brands to target consumers, via cookies, who had bought products in one of the five categories from Sainsbury’s.

Those who were exposed to the ads were compared to those who were not during the campaign and for six weeks after. It used data from Nectar cards, used in Sainsbury’s, to then track both online and offline purchases.

The results of this first test across the five brands for people shopping in Sainsbury’s found an average ROI of £1.47 for every £1 spent. Further waves of the project will be conducted to clarify that, with the number of brands involved increasing to 20 to ensure the results are robust.

Shifting spend to digital

Unilever’s homecare business took part in the trial. Stuart Jeffrey, shopper marketing manager for Unilever Homecare, says he got involved because with shoppers increasingly heading online his department wanted to know if it should be changing how it allocates budget.

“The extra benefit here was that we could see how we were changing purchase intent due to the Nectar card data. That was a big sell. We can now go back to the business to show how the investment is working. We haven’t been able to do that to-date to my knowledge,” he explains.

This has proved the theory that [online display] is not just impacting online sales but in-store as well.

Stuart Jeffrey, Unilever

A range of different messages were used in the display ads. For Persil, for example, Unilever looked to land a brand message around the laundry product’s role in getting kids to spend more time outdoors. That, admits Jeffrey, has typically been hard to do via shopper marketing because in-store activity doesn’t tend to suit a brand message.

For Nestle’s Nescafe, meanwhile, the ads focused on offering a discount, while Haagen Dazs looked to play up its link with Wimbledon.

Jeffrey says the results will provide a benchmark for online display that the company hasn’t had before.

“This has proved the theory that [online display] is not just impacting online sales but in-store as well,” he says. “My plan for this year now versus last year will be to spend more money on ecommerce sites such as Tesco and to drive people to those sites, which is where programmatic comes in.”

Proving ROI in digital display

The data from the test shows online display having a higher ROI than previously thought. Previous data compiled by the IPA suggested online display offered ROI of just £0.91 per £1 spent, although this was across all sectors and all types of digital display (not just programmatic).

READ MORE: Why the focus on short-term marketing effectiveness is bad

The new ROI figure also compares reasonably favourably to other media. According to the IPA, TV advertising is the most effective medium, delivering an average return of £1.79 for every £1 spent, although this is again across sectors not just in FMCG.

The IAB says it hopes the project will help “reassure” marketers that online display can have a positive ROI. The next stage of the campaign will also attempt to work out the full ROI across the sector, not just at Sainsbury’s. Because it only has Nectar data, the researchers will have to extrapolate for shoppers at other grocers using Nielsen’s Homescan panel data (which has data on grocery shopping from 14,500 households).

Early indications suggest this could push ROI as high as £7.64, if the ads (which featured a Sainsbury’s logo) were as effective at driving sales in other supermarkets as they were in Sainsbury’s. The IAB admits this is unlikely, but that even if the ads were 10% as effective this would give the campaign a total ROI of £2.16.

Tim Elkington, the IAB’s COO, says: “From our point of view there were lots of questions about ROI out there, particularly around sales generation. The conversations we have most often with marketers are all about what happens in the offline world if someone is exposed to an online ad and what it can do not just for brand favourability but for actual sales.

“Hopefully this adds a level of reassurance that digital display activity is not just driving brand metrics and online sales, it is offline as well. It seems like a relatively basic question but it is the sort of thing people want assurances about. And this is a really useful proof in the FMCG category.”

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