How Dove and Axe Got Into Alignment, and Why They Still Need Digital Specialists

Unilever's Weed on Gender Issues and Solving the Ad World's Digital Woes

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For Keith Weed, advertising that takes progressive stances on gender issues is like spinner luggage: It makes perfect sense when you see it, but took far too long to happen.

The chief marketing and communications officer of Unilever is pushing to eliminate stereotypes from the company's ads, but admits even some of his biggest brands have some heavy baggage on the issue. "Did Axe have stereotypical men and women?" he said. "Yes it did."

Keith Weed.
Keith Weed. Credit: Courtesy of Unilever

In an interview with Advertising Age following his presentation at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, Mr. Weed talked about why Unilever is out to end gender bias in ads. He also outlined a new digital marketing training program for everyone from CEO Paul Polman on down, and why he still sees a need for digital specialists on brands in spite of it. He bemoaned the relative lack of creative quality in mobile advertising and said that while Unilever has made strides on such issues as viewability and ad fraud, he still sees plenty of room for improvement.

Dove and Axe in Alignment
Unilever's brother sun and sister moon of brands were for years out of alignment on gender issues. Dove has had 12 years of ads trying to defy stereotypes about women's beauty. But Axe until fairly recently played on stereotypes about randy men chased by hot women rendered mindless by enticing fragrances. Company marketers explained the contradiction by noting that both brands were just trying to boost confidence of their users.

Lately, Axe's view of masculinity has grown far more complex, and not even necessarily heterosexual. And the mindless women have disappeared.

Those stereotypical ads made Axe one of Unilever's big 21st century success stories. But they also appealed in part to high-school boys or younger, who developed a reputation for overusing body spray, turning off some men and women alike. Winning more sophisticated users meant changing tone.

Has it worked? Mr. Weed points to 76 million online views of Axe's "Find Your Magic" digital and Super Bowl ad from 72andSunny as proof it has. But how about sales? "It's still early days," he said, "but we see it as a success."

More broadly, ads that are progressive on gender issues just work better, Mr. Weed said, getting 12% better viewer involvement in tests on average than ads with stereotypical treatments. He made eliminating gender stereotypes a key part of Unilever's Cannes presentations last week, and said it's now a standard part of how the company evaluates all ads.

The effort extends beyond Unilever. VP-North American Media and Digital Engagement Gail Tifford is among those spearheading an effort by the Association of National Advertisers to eliminate gender bias in U.S. advertising, based in part on research by syndicated research firm ABX, which is grading ads on how they portray women and measuring effectiveness of different approaches.

Mobile Needs Help
Gender issues aside, Mr. Weed believes quality of creative on mobile needs to improve to levels on TV and elsewhere, particularly as it's now about 80% of what Unilever spends on Facebook. He's pushing a "mobile first" approach that includes telling media companies they won't get meetings with him if they're not talking about mobile opportunities.

Virtual reality and artificial intelligence are two technologies that could help here, as he sees it. The latter for Unilever includes a "Chef Wendy" program for Knorr, which works even on feature phones, where people text in what ingredients they have and "she" texts back recipes in conversational dialog. "You cannot believe you're speaking to a machine," Mr. Weed said.

Encouraged on Digital Standards
Mr. Weed said he's encouraged by moves Facebook, Google and Twitter have made to ensure digital viewability and third-party verification. And while declining to get into details, he said even the big players have accepted being paid on Unilever's tougher-than-industry standards – which include having all pixels in view for at least half the video ad run time.

But he said the industry needs more action to deal with ad blocking.

"The real cause is irritating ads," he said. "So as an industry, whether you're an ad network or a publisher or an advertiser, we've got to make the whole experience better. If not, we'll be blocked. That's one of the things I've been talking to lots of people about." Unilever research, he said, is working on "taking the user point of view, and we think we can solve these problems."

Mr. Weed is also happy Unilever's tougher viewability standards and private digital trading operation (via Mindshare) have helped it to what he believes is an industry-low 2% fraudulent digital impressions in the U.S., when even some major advertisers have had more than 30% in a recent study. "But 2% is still too much," he said.

Digital Training and Specialists Both Needed
Rapid technological change makes training even more important, but Mr. Weed said too many marketing departments neglect it. "I find it incredible in business that capability building and training is seen as something that's not part of the core job," he said.

Unilever earlier this month launched an online digital training program for all marketers and general managers, with modules on search, mobile and social. It includes pre- and post-course tests and a database that logs participation.

CEO Paul Polman asked to take the online classes, completing all four modules rolled out to date, Mr. Weed said. "If I'm speaking to a brand manager in the Philippines who says, 'I haven't had time to do my modules,' I say, 'Paul Polman, he's running the company, and he did his.' If you're not willing to invest in your own capabilities, now's a good time to find another job."

Still, even with a new training program and plenty of twentysomething "digital native" marketers, he's still not willing to do away, as some companies have, with digital specialists for each of his big brands.

"I think you need both," Mr. Weed said. "All marketers need to be digital marketers. That said, this world is changing so fast and accelerating. So I believe you need people within the organization out there ahead of everyone else. I need to be experimenting now in virtual reality, for example. If you wait until the time when everyone catches up, then by definition you're the same as everyone else."