‘Value and values’: Unilever’s top marketer on the key to marketing through a recession

In times of uncertainty, Unilever’s top marketer Conny Braams says brands must adapt to immediate changes without losing sight of their long-term strategy.

Unilever“Value and values” are key to marketing in times of recession, according to Unilever’s chief digital and marketing officer Conny Braams, who says brands have got to “strike the right balance” between short-term fire fighting and long-term objectives when times are tough.

“In the short term we need to adapt to this highly volatile environment and you’ll see adaptation going around in the world depending on [local] lockdowns,” she says. “But at the same time we know that in recession big brands normally flourish as people go back to brands they trust.”

Unilever will continue to adapt its marketing approach as the situation with Covid evolves, but at the same time Braams stresses the importance of not losing sight of the long-term marketing strategy and the vision it has for its brands.

“In a recessionary environment of course we [must ensure we observe] what is happening now, but we must also build brands for the longer term. Because that is our way to navigate through this high volatility. You need to have an agile approach – and that’s what we’ve done throughout Covid,” she explains.

Braams took on the top marketing role at Unilever at the beginning of 2020, having been at the FMCG giant for more than three decades.

Just a couple of months into her new role, though, the pandemic took hold and Unilever, like all companies, was forced to adapt.

In times of recession people still want to celebrate life in smaller ways.

Conny Braams, Unilever

Although Unilever is a global business Braams says it’s important to be able to react at a local level, while keeping an eye on the bigger picture. When Covid hit, Unilever halted some channels, geographies and categories where local conditions meant investment would have been wasted, something it is constantly reviewing.

“We see that China is really picking up the pace again, just as Australia is, but Mexico is now severely hit as are a number of other countries in South America,” she says. “But as a global pattern we see that Covid will be leading us to quite a big recession.”

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Finding a point of difference

While brands often talk about the need to look at price architecture and how to appeal to cash-strapped consumers in times of uncertainty, Braams believes it is as important to focus on what a brand stands for.

“Yes, it is about value, but it is also about values,” she says. “Because what we have also seen during Covid is people are becoming more conscious in their consumption. Conscious in knowing that we live on one planet and that everything interacts, and that they themselves can play a role in making this a more sustainable place to live.”

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Unilever has long been an advocate of building brands with purpose and Braams believes now more than ever this will act as a point of difference as “people are expecting brands to also be a solution to societal problems”.

While the company was cautious with its approach when the pandemic took hold, making sure it didn’t show large groups of people in its advertising, for example, Braams sees an opportunity to be “cheerful” again.

She says people are now “looking for joy in these times of uncertainty”, highlighting strong ice cream sales as a signal that consumers are interested in lightening the mood and treating themselves.

Unilever invested heavily in the development of its ‘ice cream now’ offer last year, partnering with players such as Deliveroo and Just Eat to deliver ice cream to people at home. As a result in-home ice cream sales increased by 17%, which helped to offset the 20% decline seen in out-of-home sales.

“While people were not able to go out to the beaches and boulevards to buy an ice cream, we’ve overcompensated with in-home ice cream consumption and that is a clear testament to the fact that in times of recession people still want to celebrate life in smaller ways,” Braams adds.

Conny Braams will be speaking about digitisation, ecommerce and why it’s important to keep sustainability simple at the Festival of Marketing’s Fast Forward event on 7 to 10 June. Visit the Festival website for more information on sessions, speakers and tickets.