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For Unilever’s chief digital and marketing officer Conny Braams there is a strong business case for addressing the climate crisis but, crucially, “it’s not a contest”. Today she speaks to The Drum about how Unilever’s marketing department is furthering its commitment to sustainability and why it wants to bring its many agencies – and other brands – along for the ride.

Unilever is a company that was making the business case for sustainability long before the likes of Allbirds or Beyond Meat even existed. The Dove and Knorr owner has seen that when its brands act for people and the planet, they grow 69% faster than the rest of its business.

The ‘Unilever Sustainable Living Plan’ first debuted 10 years ago, setting targets to reach 1.3 billion people through its health and hygiene campaigns; dramatically reduce its waste footprint per consumer; decrease its greenhouse emissions; and achieve zero waste to landfill across all of its factories.

A decade on, some of these targets remain a work in progress but many have been met. Now its chief marketing and digital officer Connie Braams is spearheading a mission to use its brands to drive more sustainable behavior among consumers.

“We’ve already proven the business case for sustainability is sound. Focusing on the environment has saved us money – we’ve made €1.2bn in efficiencies thanks to sustainable sourcing across the business. It’s also a talent magnet, it’s helped us become the top FMCG employer in the world.”

Now Unilever is challenging its marketers across its suite of brands to push their values more clearly to consumers and ensure sustainability is baked into their brands’ propositions.

“It’s time to focus on consumers first. We’re pushing an open door here; everyone wants to be more sustainable but there is a difficulty for consumers when it comes to choosing products that are good for the planet.

“They are often confused by the language used [by brands]. So as marketers we need to take it upon ourselves to simplify [the purchase journey] for consumers.”

This change will be effortless as marketers are making it easy for people to plump for a more sustainable option in store or online, or using clever media to present them with the right information at the perfect time.

“One thing marketers ought to be good at is distilling clear messages and communicating clearly and compellingly,” she adds, saying a renewed focus on this will bring about “a next level of transparency” for the business.

A big element of this strategy will include ensuring brands’ sustainability credentials stack up against their messaging. It’s already making progess here: in 2019 Dove announced a move towards using 100% recyclable plastic in its products, while last year Persil used its longstanding ‘Dirt is Good’ platform to celebrate a shift towards low-carbon, low-plastic production process. 

Two years ago, Unilever chief executive Alan Jope committed to purging brands from its portfolio that stood without a purpose. Braams admits than, even now, some of its marques are still searching for theirs, but she says this is an opportunity here for some brands to “authentically” tap into a greener positioning.

“One thing is for certain, consumers are ready to take this journey and we need to take them by the hand. Part of it is making sure sustainability is positioned within all of our brands, whether that’s through communication or innovation.

“The other piece of the jigsaw is demystifying that and making sure everything we do is honest, transparent and can be authenticated.”

Sustainability ‘not a contest’

Braams is right – consumers are more than ready to invest in brands reducing their impact on the planet. 

A recent study from Evian, published ahead of Earth Day on Thursday 22 April, finds 59% of people are ‘disappointed’ in big names that still haven’t got their sustainability initiatives right. Many feel advertisers are simply not transparent enough with their wider sustainability goals

As of this week, Unilever is among a number of global corporates (including Diageo and Tesco) which have just signed up to the ‘Planet Pledge’ – an initiative led by the World Federation of Advertisers that will see brands commit to championing zero-carbon initiatives both internally and externally. The framework will also see brands use their advertising to encourage consumers to be more green and ensure their communications around anything green are ‘trustworthy’ and easily substantiated.

The pledge comes as marketers concede that their own function is lagging behind the rest of the business when it comes to addressing climate issues. Just 10% of CMOs say they are ‘well advanced’ in their sustainability journey, compared to 29% who agree their wider organisation has already reached this stage.

Braams is firm in her belief that while sustainability is certainly good for business, it’s certainly not a competition. 

“Sustainability is not a contest,” she says, “the issue is too important. It’s time for marketers to commit and get creative, we need to change the system collectively.”

Part of this includes bringing Unilever’s hundreds of agency partners along on the journey.

“I believe in the power of agencies to help us creatively solve this challenge. It’s not a new challenge for agencies, or us, but there’s more urgency to take measures and ensure that our brands take on the responsibility for creating a better planet.”

She says her digital remit, which Unilever added to the top marketing job following the departure of longtime brand boss Keith Weed in 2019, will also play a critical role in advancing Unilever’s sustainability journey.

“The digital space provides us with a lot of issues for transparency and making sustainable choices simple [for consumers] will be easier done online. So this is something we’re working on too.”

Unilever is currently one of the huge brands in the midst of a scheduled global media review. WPP, Omnicom and Interpublic are incumbents on the media account for one of the world’s largest advertisers, which spent €7.1bn on brand marketing investment in 2020 alone. Challengers are thought to include Dentsu and Publicis too in some markets.

Braams gives little away on the pitch progess, but says digital prowess is a must for contenders.

“Our digital spend is increasing and we live in a digital ecosystem that’s rapidly evolving. So agencies capable of helping us deliver relevant messages to the right audience at the right time will be [something] we are looking for.”