BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- Digital media and branded content largely have been seen as strategies for mature markets where TV advertising faces its greatest threats from media fragmentation and DVRs. But Unilever has found that such programs work in India and China as well as the U.S., and is making them increasingly common in global campaigns, even in developing markets.
The consumer-goods giant is close to concluding a review to name its first and one of the marketing industry's first truly global digital-agency rosters to help carry out a global digital strategy developed with input from such digerati as Federated Media Chairman John Battelle and BlogHer co-founder Jory Des Jardins.
Unilever also has launched everything from Chinese versions of "Ugly Betty" and "Vietnam Idol" (for Clear shampoo, but replete with cups of Lipton tea on the judges table) to a stage play in Toronto on a theme pulled from Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty" in recent years.
More recently, it looked to reload by becoming the first marketer to host a contest for content producers to submit more ideas at MIPTV, the international entertainment-content market at Cannes in April. It was not unlike a global version of the "reverse upfront" process Unilever has tried in the U.S. the past two years. It attracted 70 entries, with at least one and possibly as many as three likely to be used by brands, said Babs Rangaiah, Unilever's global communications-planning director.
The digital roster, believed likely to include Sapient and an entry from WPP incorporating several agencies into a single unit, will have five to 10 agencies in all, from which Unilever's global brands will choose, Mr. Rangaiah said.
He called it "a nice mix of agencies that are both pure plays as well as extensions of advertising holding companies, as well as some small entrepreneurial types. ... There are also some pretty innovative ways some of the agencies are putting together groups to service us. Under a holding company, for example, it may not be one agency but a mixture of different groups that they have that make up a unit."
Penetrating the culture
Be it digital marketing or branded content -- or even throwing in the kitchen sink, as it were, with a program installing branded sinks for Lifebuoy soap in temples in India -- it's all related, Mr. Rangaiah said. "It all goes to the mantra we've had here of trying to penetrate the culture."
TV, of course, continues to work for many advertisers, even in developed markets, and particularly in developing markets where there is less fragmentation, less DVR penetration and fewer media distractions. But in developing and developed markets alike, providing consumers something that's engaging and useful works -- regardless of the media environment, Mr. Rangaiah said.
"The concept of doing more innovative things that are more important and engaging to consumers goes beyond the DVR," he said.
Digital certainly goes beyond other media in the sense that it truly is global, allowing for campaigns that span countries instantly in ways few others did in the past. Still, Unilever sees the need to customize by country.
For one thing, while PCs and home broadband may never reach the penetration levels in developing markets that they have in, say, the U.S., mobile offers plenty of opportunity, Mr. Rangaiah said.
One example he pointed to was a campaign for Axe in India and Japan aimed at men 18 to 23 who use their mobile phones as alarm clocks. They can get a downloadable application that uses a woman's sexy voice as the alarm. "It's been downloaded in the millions in both those markets," Mr. Rangaiah said, "and it's really generating a lot of PR and a lot of buzz.
"The way most people are using mobile and social media," he said, "is that they're just translating the old model, which is just sticking a vertical ad onto the Facebook page or a banner on the website, which is not the way we're pushing the approach. We want people to reframe what those channels are."