How Unilever Found the Balance Between Creativity and Sales

CMO Keith Weed on Bringing Rigor, Repetition and Results to Advertising

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If a marketer has ever earned a reputation for pushing creative boundaries within the past decade, it's Unilever, as evidenced by its wins at the 2007 Film Grand Prix at Cannes. Trouble is , over the same decade it's produced inconsistent results, shrinking its market share overall.

The task of delivering on both sales and creativity falls to Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Keith Weed, a career Unilever executive named to his leadership post and placed on the company's executive board in 2010 by CEO Paul Polman. And while Mr. Weed is happy with the business results -- including organic sales growth of 7% in the first half of the year putting Unilever near the top of his competitive set -- he's still not completely satisfied.

Keith Weed
Keith Weed

"We've just about got the balance right," Mr. Weed said. "We could go further on the creativity." In the parlance of Unilever's "Crafting Brands for Life" strategy unveiled last year, it's all about delivering magic along with logic. And in a break with his predecessor and friend Simon Clift, Mr. Weed has come down squarely on the side of copy testing to help deliver the logic.

Some Unilever veterans and agency executives have privately expressed dismay at the company's embrace of copy testing. This is just the latest in a long debate: Some disciplined packaged-goods executives see it as a necessary assurance that ads will sell stuff. At the same time, agency creatives and some marketers argue that pretesting spawns dull work.

'It's Inarguable Proof'
"I've increased the spend on advertising pretesting quite significantly," Mr. Weed said. "I've certainly got enough evidence, real hard evidence, showing that ads we've pretested perform better in the marketplace than ads we don't. It's inarguable proof."

That said, he acknowledged that Unilever executives have at times frustrated agencies by incorrectly using copy testing. "If you use pretesting as a go/no-go gate, you're using it incorrectly," he said. "We have trends. We have marketing strategy. We have segmentation. By the way, we also have judgment and gut and all the other things. So to me, it's one of eight things you should be considering."

Even if there are kinks to work out, it's hard to knock the results logged by Unilever. Reviewing Unilever's performance over the past decade in a recent report, Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Andrew Wood said the company has gone from losing global market share every year from 2002 to 2008 to gaining share for each of the past three years.

While the company performed near the bottom of its global competitive set for top-line growth from 2001 to 2005, it came in at the middle in the food category last year, ranked No. 2 in the beauty and personal-care market behind Estee Lauder, and No. 1 in the home-care arena, according to Bernstein analysis.

And when it comes to creative work, while Mr. Weed wasn't pleased with Unilever's awards performance in 2011, he's happier so far this year after Unilever agencies won 22 Lions at the International Advertising Festival.

"The one I particularly covet," Mr. Weed said, is the Grand Prix for Creative Effectiveness. That came for Bartle Bogle Hegarty, London's work for Axe Excite in the U.K. that served as the cornerstone for a global campaign.

Mr. Weed is also proud of Dove's Ad Makeover, created by Ogilvy & Mather, London. The app, a winner of cyber and PR Lions, lets Facebook users zap any ads they think make women feel bad about their looks.

In the universe of corporate mission statements, Unilever's "Crafting Brands for Life" may be the only one to include the nuance to manage the tension between freewheeling creativity and traditional consumer packaged goods discipline. Marc Mathieu, the Coca-Cola veteran who became senior VP-marketing at Unilever last year, underscored the choice of the word "crafting."

"If you want to do magic, the first time you're not going to get it right," Mr. Mathieu said. "You need to rehearse, repeat, learn and get it right. Then you go and show it first to someone you trust, a friend not someone who will judge you and say it's stupid. And then when you're ready, you do your trick in front of 50 people. That's why we used the imagery of craftsmanship, so people understand that magic doesn't happen by accident. We should do magic that works."

Mr. Mathieu is testament to another Unilever balancing act: the bringing in of outside talent while preserving much of the indigenous corporate culture. "Paul [Polman] opened that door of saying, 'We need to inject some new talent,'" Mr. Mathieu said. "I think it's a good thing. Otherwise I wouldn't be here."

A Big Factor at Play
While Unilever isn't afraid to look outside for expertise, Mr. Mathieu said, "you also need a culture that embraces that expertise because with great expertise usually comes great weaknesses. You need to create a whole team and culture surrounding those people."

That's one reason why Unilever has doubled its spending on marketing training under Mr. Weed. Another bigger factor at play is the need for Unilever to keep pace with the emergence of digital marketing.

And while it's clear the center of marketing gravity has shifted toward London in recent years for Unilever, some close to the company see local tweaks still adding too much complexity. Mr. Mathieu, however, sees the balance as working.

"Coke was very Atlanta-centric" and dominated by a single flagship brand, Mr. Mathieu said. At Unilever, he sees more of the influence of marketers outside headquarters and across brands. "We no longer live in a world," he said, "where great marketing is going to be born in the West and exported to developing countries."

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