Unilever: Investing in the latest craze won’t help build brand strength

Unilever is piloting a number of new technologies, including visual recognition and voice search but warns marketers must not be naïve and get distracted from their main strategy.


Unilever has warned marketers not to jump on every new tech or trend bandwagon, saying maintaining brand strength should always be the key focus.

Speaking at Mindshare’s Trends 2018 event this morning (23 January), Unilever’s global media director Ben Johnson said: “There is a risk with all these things that we invest heavily into a bandwagon that everyone is jumping on.

“We are testing. We have 130 different pilots on the go across all sorts of different technology. The point is not all of them will work but we’ll learn which ones do and then we’ll scale across the rest of the portfolio. The point here is trying to isolate where it is going to get to and knowing how much to invest before. You’ve got to know when you’re going to need to scale it. And we don’t need to scale everything.”

In particular, Johnson warns against jumping on crazes such as skills for Amazon’s Alexa device to the detriment of coming up with a proper strategy for voice search, which he believes will be hugely important in the future. ComScore has estimated that half of all searches will be through voice by 2020, making it paramount that marketers understand how consumers are using voice and where they can add value.

The most important thing remains having a strong brand.

Ben Johnson, Unilever

“[It is so] important to get those initial connections with consumers in this space right. Otherwise, if you’re not on the list, you have lost them forever,” he explained.

Johnson believes it is this space in particular that brand strength is so important. Many commentators have raised the issue that if someone uses Amazon’s Alexa to add items to their shopping list, Amazon could just add its own-brand product so brands never make it onto the list. But Johnson says the key is to have brands that are so strong that consumers will say “no” to the own brand.

“[It will come down to] the strength of the brand and the strength of the category and the price elasticity and the importance on price,” he said.

“While we investigate new routes to market – one-to-one, direct-to-consumer, subscription-based – the most important thing remains having a strong brand so the consumer says ‘no, I want Domestos’ [in the bleach category]. Then you have to think about Domestos, what is it that makes the consumer in a low interest category say ‘actually no’.”

Another area where Johnson sees opportunity for Unilever is in visual recognition because Unilever brands “sit in two billion homes”. That gives marketers an “amazing opportunity” to engage with consumers using packaging, he added.

“Visual recognition is one thing in the armoury, along with voice, but it is about trying to tailor it to the category specific solution, the consumer need,” he said.

“In visual recognition, what is most exciting for me is transparency. In the UK you could see a back story, content on our farm solutions – that is brilliant because you are giving the consumer more information about the products they actually purchase and the brands invest sustainably.”

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