BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- Brands aren't simply brands anymore. They are the center of a maelstrom of social and political dialogue made possible by digital media, said Unilever Chief Marketing Officer Simon Clift, who warned that marketers who do not recognize that -- and adapt their marketing -- are in grave peril.
"No matter how big your advertising spending, small groups of consumers on a tiny budget might hijack the conversation," he said. "So this internet thing is much bigger and more interesting than just finding successors to TV advertising."
Mr. Clift was speaking to a packed house at Ad Age's Digital Conference last week, in an address that did much to define an internet-driven sea change that's put consumers in control and at times threatened to overwhelm marketers and their agencies, who -- despite frequent protestations to the contrary -- are still rather partial to the idea that they define their brands.
|Full Coverage of the 2009 Ad Age Digital Conference|
Noting that the challenge for marketing goes beyond the recession, Mr. Clift added: "brands are now becoming conversation factors where academics, celebrities, experts and key opinion formers discuss functional, emotional and, more interestingly, social concerns," and "of course, the conversation is no longer one way or 30 seconds. ... You may want to talk about sport and just doing it, and the consumer raises the uncomfortable question of sweatshops."
It's a lesson learned partly from Greenpeace, which last year hijacked "Onslaught," Dove's follow-up to the massively viral "Evolution" video, with what turned into a widely watched and discussed parody focusing on Unilever's purchases of palm oil resulting in destruction of Indonesian rainforest. "Digital is "bringing [social and environmental concerns] to the surface in a completely new and powerful way," he said. "Technology allows people to make their voices heard across YouTube or blogs and ultimately to organize a boycott."
As a result, public relations may become the fastest-growing focal point of marketing services for Unilever in the years ahead, he said in an interview after his talk. Mr. Clift said he sees an opportunity for billion-dollar brands "that address the world's challenges."
Some brands "simply won't survive this accelerated natural selection," he said.
Of course, Mr. Clift said, consumers still mainly want bathroom cleaners and soap. And brand marketers are still primarily interested in selling stuff. So he believes the corporate Unilever brand will need to step to the forefront and shoulder the burden of communicating about the deeper issues -- a turnabout for a company that long has stood well in the background behind its brands.
One of Mr. Clift's roles when he became fulltime CMO last year was to become the steward of the Unilever corporate brand, and he's approaching it aggressively. In the U.K., the company last month began putting prominent corporate signatures on all its advertising. After his talk, he said Unilever will likely make similar moves in the U.S. Unilever's decision to name a global PR roster in addition to its agency roster signals another movement in this regard.
And while digital media may have put marketers more clearly into the social and political fray, Mr. Clift also sees no problem acknowledging that social programs run by marketers are still very much about marketing.
A Lifebuoy program aimed at cutting the number of deaths from diarrheal diseases in developing markets -- estimated at 2 million annually -- in half has reached 120 million people in five years, he said. It increasingly goes through mobile devices, which are growing faster than TV in markets such as India, where only a quarter of households in the poorest villages have TVs.
"It's a sort of enlightened self-interest," Mr. Clift said. "It's not about philanthropy. It's a marketing program with social benefits."
But extending what began as a public-relations program for Dove -- Campaign for Real Beauty -- over the broader marketing effort for the brand has had its drawbacks.
"Advertising that just kind of celebrated being overweight was just clearly wrong and wasn't effective for consumers, either," Mr. Clift said. "We want to encourage you to take care of yourself. ... But you should nevertheless make yourself feel good about making the best of yourself. ... And of course there's a fine line, but there's a line that sometimes we got wrong."
Dove has grown since the Campaign for Real Beauty began in 2004, but it's recently slowed. That has more to do with the products than the campaign, he said. Most advertising for the brand is still about functional benefits, Mr. Clift said, but Real Beauty drew more attention. "This is a brand that people absolutely love but it hasn't always been relevant in product terms." He added that the brand had made itself more relevant for younger women with its launch of the Go Fresh lineup last year.
Five new rules for marketingThe flat-earth, digitized world described by Unilever CMO Simon Clift is one in which the marketing norms have changed. Here are Ad Age's "New Rules." Feel free to argue or send us additional rules you think you should be added to the list.
- Listening to consumers is more important than talking at them. As Mr. Clift said, "We may be ahead of our competitors, but we're most definitely behind consumers." The consumer is not a moron, she's the person defining your brand.
- You can't hide the corporation behind the brand anymore -- or even fully separate the two. Even this editor's creaking computer only took 0.13 seconds to show that Philip Morris is owned by Altria Group. Welcome to radical transparency, where bad corporate behavior will damage your brands, and vice versa.
- PR is a primary concern for every CMO and brand manager. If "marketing" and "PR" are not the same department, tear down the wall. Spend time deciding whether PR is underleveraged in your organization.
- Cause marketing isn't about philanthropy, it's about "enlightened self-interest," as Mr. Clift puts it. That doesn't mean it doesn't count. Don't be ashamed of your profit motive, because great branding and doing good are increasingly one and the same.
- Social media is not a strategy. You need to understand it, and you'll need to deploy it as a tactic. But remember that the social graph just makes it even more important that you have a good product. Put another way: The volume and quality of your earned media will be directly proportional to the impact and quality of your product and ideas.
Send your "new rules" to firstname.lastname@example.org.