Unilever exec shares ideas for Internet strategies

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While Procter & Gamble Co. has gotten much of the spotlight in interactive advertising among package-goods marketers, Anglo-Dutch consumer products giant Unilever is catching up fast. Unilever spent $1.1 million online in the first four months of '99, compared to P&G's $2.7 million, according to InterMedia Advertising Solutions. But Marc de Swaan Arons, director of interactive marketing U.S., recently told Advertising Age its global interactive spending would nearly double next year. While much of Unilever's Web efforts to date have been experimental, they're also starting to get results. After forging partnerships with America Online, Microsoft Corp. and NetGrocer last year, Unilever this year put the deals to work to create Web spaces for women and to deliver information and services to its consumers.

Leading that effort is David Stern, VP-interactive marketing for Unilever U.S. and head of its New York-based Interactive Brand Center, which develops interactive strategy and tactics for Unilever brands globally. Up to now, Unilever has been fairly quiet about details of its interactive strategy.

In an interview with Ad Age correspondent Jack Neff, Mr. Stern discusses how Unilever is looking beyond ad measures and models to develop interactive marketing that engages consumers.

Advertising Age: Unilever has made clear it plans to diversify away from its dependence on TV advertising. How important is interactive to those overall plans?

David Stern: It's important to say we've had obvious success in building brands via TV. I think the Internet, though, offers us a really powerful opportunity to go beyond TV into the area of forging closer relationships with our core consumers and offering products and services to improve their lives.

AA: How would you sum up Unilever's interactive strategy?

Mr. Stern: What we're trying to do is harness [the] power of a very new and powerful medium to get closer to understanding our core consumers, what they need, how we can make their lives better. . . . We've got a very broad program of strategic alliances. You'll probably recall we were the first [package-goods company] to make deals with AOL and Microsoft [in summer 1998]. [Among] the key learnings we've taken away so far is the real power of this medium to offer consumer-centric solutions, as opposed to simple brand messages.

I'll give you an example of that. We've done some wonderful work with our Lipton Recipe Secrets. We've had a large menu database. We've had a lot of programs where we send recipes to consumers. But if you're a person with a couple of kids and it's 4:30 in the afternoon and you've got to make dinner for the kids and they're screaming and running around, and all you've got in the cupboard is some tomatoes, some pasta, some oil and a couple of spices, our recipes don't do you a heck of a lot of good. So we've got a program where you can come to our Web site and type in "here's what I have in my cupboard and refrigerator right now," and we'll give you a recipe that only uses those ingredients. I think it's a terrific example of how you can make this medium come alive to provide real value at the time and the place where the consumer needs it most.

AA: There's been a lot of noise made, particularly among package-goods marketers, about the quest for an interactive advertising model that's going to work as well as a TV ad. Do you think that model is emerging--or will it?

Mr. Stern: I think the real question is how can package-goods manufacturers use the medium to add value to everyday consumers' lives. A lot of people are getting caught up in the search for the perfect model or the perfect measure. And we're doing our fair share of testing different models and researching different approaches. But as we go forward, we're becoming more and more convinced the power of the medium really lies in getting the product or service that the consumer needs to them at the point that they need it.

AA: What are some ways you do that?

Mr. Stern: Unipath, as you might know, sells a fertility enhancement device (called ClearPlan Easy) for the large number of women who have trouble conceiving in the United States. They're going to specific areas of the Internet right now where there's advice or chat or other forums where they can get information. We've been offering a service through Unipath (a promotion, currently running with iVillage) where we can advertise or sponsor areas in the site where women can come to us and draw on our rather broad expertise in how to become pregnant or the best way to approach these questions. They can receive some personalized information from us as they request it, helping them understand their issues. And, last, they can click on a button and actually buy the ovulation monitor kit that will help them become pregnant.

AA: One hears of widely different click-through levels with the same ad at different Web sites. Is it possible that the medium or media environment may be more important than the model?

Mr. Stern: The model that I really look at in terms of shaping our direction is utility--how to service the life of a consumer. . . . I'll give you another example of us taking an early stake in this position. I'd point to our relationship with Microsoft and . . . the Microsoft Women's channel (WomenCentral), which is something we started last year, pretty much before women came on the Internet in the numbers they have this year. [Unilever is a premier sponsor of MSN WomenCentral.]

That was all driven by our interest in creating an area where our core consumers, women, particularly women with families, could come and find the information and the services that were relevant to them.

AA: How do you measure success or failure in interactive marketing at this point? How important are click-through rates?

Mr. Stern: We look at click-throughs. But what we're more interested in are some of the qualitative measures we're developing that can tell us how we're doing at our core strategy of forging relationships and improving service quality. You can measure the relationship or the value you're adding through traditional brand equity measures (e.g., brand awareness surveys). But we've also begun to measure it in terms of . . . are you establishing an ongoing dialogue? . . . You can also measure it in terms of was it valuable enough for them to pass it on to one of their friends. One of the successful programs we've had [was with] our I Can't Believe It's Not Butter brand and its spokesperson Fabio. We offered an opportunity for consumers through our Microsoft alliance to send a Fabio postcard on Valentine's Day. Over 1 million Fabio postcards were sent.

AA: Given the comments by Richard Goldstein, president-North America of Unilever at the @d:tech Internet conference related to banners, it would seem Unilever is among package-goods companies not enthralled with them. What's your view on the banner as an ad model?

Mr. Stern: I would focus us away from the form of the advertising being the most important issue. The real question is what we're trying to accomplish through the advertising. . . . I think banner ads are one tool in a sea of tools that allow me to get closer to my consumer and add some value.

AA: There have been reports that the relationship with AOL is in the $100 million range. I was wondering if you could talk about what you've done with AOL.

Mr. Stern: We knew from our Salon Selectives brand that a lot of the questions the Salon Selectives people received had to do with how celebrities do their hair at the Oscars and how . . . could our consumers do their hair the same way. What we did was set up a program with AOL where we carved out a sponsorship of an Oscars site within AOL's network, and we offered the stylists who helped us create the Salon Selectives brand to comment in real time about the hair styles of the stars and also offer advice to consumers on how they could do their hair that way.

AA: Do you think the same strategies that work for PCs or books work for personal care or food products as well?

Mr. Stern: I don't know if the same strategies will work, but I do believe this medium will be as powerful a tool for selling personal care and food products in the long term as it has been for PCs, books and CDs. The more this medium evolves into [an] everyday utility, the easier it gets for average people to access information quickly and easily. The more services and solutions we can offer online, I think the more consumers are going to turn to this medium as a way to enhance their daily lives.

AA: Do you see consumers using the Web to get more information about package-goods products before buying them?

Mr. Stern: I think they're going to use the Web not only to get more information about the items, but also to purchase them. I'd say this medium is continuing to evolve toward greater utility. With the advent of broadband access, with always-on (Internet) systems in the home, with the ability of wireless platforms to move consumers beyond personal computers sitting at desks . . . . it doesn't make a lot of sense to sit down at your computer, dial in and order milk. It makes a lot of sense when the computer is already on, or when the computer is my phone, and I can just say into my phone "I need milk." The more functionality this medium begins to employ in the service of consumers, I think more and more they're going to use the medium to do what they do every day, which is buy food and other sustenance products for daily living.

Copyright December 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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