Unilever speaks up about Internet strategy

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While the industry is abuzz about Procter & Gamble Co.'s interactive strategy and the meeting the consumer goods giant is holding the week of Aug. 17 in Cincinnati, its chief competitor Unilever is taking a quieter, but still aggressive approach.

Richard Goldstein, president and CEO of Unilever U.S., said he's not bothered by the fact that P&G is receiving the lion's share of press, and said some Unilever employees will attend the Future of Advertising Stakeholders summit.

NOT PLAYING `ME-TOO' ROLE

"I'd much rather spend money on helping people know our brands," he said last week after giving a keynote speech at the Jupiter Online Conference. Unilever isn't just spending money on digital marketing advertising because everyone else is, but instead is "developing the interactive business because we believe it's the right thing to do. ... I don't know what's going to happen, but I'm convinced we've got to play and we've got to engage our consumers," Mr. Goldstein said.

$20 MIL IN ONLINE DEALS

Unilever has more than 40 branded Web sites, including one for Ragu spaghetti sauce and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. It recently signed deals worth $20 million with America Online and Microsoft Corp.

The company also inked an agreement with online supermarket NetGrocer that includes exclusive rights to promote, advertise, research and market Unilever products. Those initiatives are just getting under way.

Mr. Goldstein said he views the company's initiatives as experiments about how to work with brands and consumers in the digital age.

"This is truly experimental. For me, it's the same as investing in having scientists play with molecules in order to come up with a new product," he said.

QUESTIONING VALUE OF THE WEB

During his Jupiter speech, Mr. Goldstein showed the conference attendees a telling video of Unilever consumers from research groups answering questions about the Internet. Most had trouble coming up with a description for terms like hard drive and search engine. When asked if they would buy consumer goods products on the Web, some agreed it would be convenient, but others wondered what was the benefit.

When further questioned about how they felt about the new digital medium, again the consumers split with feelings ranging from excitement to intimidation.

"It's a complex challenge for all of us. There's still a great deal of convincing that needs to be done for our consumers," Mr. Goldstein said.

"P&G beat Unilever to an important punch with the FAST summit. It'll be a nice big splash this summer for [P&G]," said Peter Storck, VP-research for Jupiter Communications. "But Unilever seems serious and I know, for example, they've been serious in Europe for a while."

Copyright August 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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