He put his thinking to work as his teaching evolved into a consulting practice, then into a full-time internal consulting post with Unilever in London in 1986 as head of a strategy group that reported to co-Chairman Niall Fitzgerald.
He returned to the U.S. in 1996 as head of corporate strategy for Unilever's food businesses just as the Internet was becoming a force in marketing. Unilever launched Ragu.com in 1995, the first package goods-branded Web site; Mama's Cucina is still active today. (The site was created by Fry Multimedia, Ann Arbor, Mich.; see Page s-56.) Mr. Romeo also launched a task force to evaluate the Internet's impact on Unilever a year later, resulting in the launch of the North American Interactive Brand Center he heads as chairman.
Within a year, he helped forge partnerships with America Online and Microsoft Corp.
Mr. Romeo has seen the views of Unilever marketing executives shift toward the Internet along with changes in the broader marketplace. As interactive advertising has become more commonplace in marketing plans, Mr. Romeo increasingly sees it being evaluated the same as any other marketing tool.
"Certainly the general belief that this is going to change the world is still there," Mr. Romeo says. "Now people are trying to manage the transition in a way that has a legitimate investment in experimentation and learning, but still tries . . . to optimize marketing budgets we now have."
Part of Mr. Romeo's role is to help evaluate what, if any, interactive vehicle is right for brands as he also helps develop experiments in new areas, such as the wireless Internet. Unilever looks for ways to tie interactive marketing with other initiatives, such as the company's growing use of customer relationship management.
Mr. Romeo estimates the average Unilever consumer spends $60 to $70 on one of the company's brands a year; spreading that investment over several brands can start to justify more elaborate one-to-one marketing approaches. Thus, the database for a September mailing of HomeBasics, a glossy 24-page custom-published magazine promoting a variety of Unilever brands, was developed in part for consumers who had registered with multiple Unilever sites.
Mr. Romeo also sees digital marketing helping Unilever evolve from a brand-centric to a consumer-centric approach to solve individual problems. One example, he says, will be a "solution selling" focus for Unilever's soon-to-be unveiled beauty care e-tailing partnership with iVillage, called Substance.com.
"Because of digital media, we think there's much more potential to build lasting relationships," Mr. Romeo says. "And those relationships will still be at the brand level, but we will also be able to manage them as a multibranded company across brands."