CANNES, FRANCE -- Unilever is doubling its digital investment this year, and part of the impetus behind that has been Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Keith Weed getting 30 of the company's line managers to join him on a trip to Silicon Valley earlier this year to put together deals such as the company's recently announced charter sponsorship on Apple's iAd platform.
In an interview during the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, Mr. Weed acknowledged there's a risk in "getting ahead of consumers," as he describes some of Unilever's efforts. But he likens investments in emerging media to those in upstream product development -- a necessary outlay to ensure long-term growth.
Traditionally, funding for marketing innovation tends to get cut, not increased, during hard times, and it has sometimes spawned resentment when forced on line managers. But Mr. Weed said support from Unilever CEO Paul Polman for the effort has been key to making it work.
That support for exploring emerging marketing practices will help prevent the sorts of retrenchment in experimental spending that has afflicted companies in the past, Mr. Weed said. And he noted that digital investment dovetails with another of his charges, developing the Unilever corporate brand.
Ad Age: You've said you're going to double digital spending this year, which is really very ambitious. Why?
Mr. Weed: At the end of the day we are a mass marketer. Every day, 2 billion people use our products. So what dictates what we do is those consumers, and I want to be where consumers are. The truth of the matter is we're seeing this huge migration across the world to digital. We need to be ahead of the consumer, so when the consumer arrives, we're already there.
Ad Age: Is it hard to find a place in digital to spend all that money?
Mr. Weed: "Digital" itself as a catch-all [word] is as unhelpful as "advertising" was when it describes TV, cinema, poster, painting your brand on the side of the house. I look at our investment in the buckets of paid, owned and earned. [Our investment in owned] is the smallest part. The biggest part is going to be in earned, and there are going to be two parts. One is the social area, but also moving into digital and gaming.
In digital, we've had a runaway success for the Axe wake-up call in India [putting a ring tone into alarms on mobile devices.] Lipton in China also did a thing around the New Year where you upload a photo and put little crosses where your eye and mouth were and then with the wonders of technology, you superimpose your face on the bodies of people doing a music video. This went to over 100 million people.
On the social side, we've agreed to a step-change increase in our spend with Facebook. I've just been spending some time with people from Microsoft. We've also signed with Apple on the iAd.
Ad Age: Is there a risk when you try to get ahead of the consumer that you leave consumers behind?
Mr. Weed: Yes, and that's why you ask the question. And that's why I'm splitting what I call the advertising R&D [from other spending]. In products we have the things applying the science of today, and then the exploratory research where we're trying to come up with new molecules, etc. I'm trying to get that same kind of division in advertising so we're clear in what we're doing.
So [at Cannes] you'll see a vending machine for ice cream that's fully interactive with technology that would have required NASA to do it 10 years ago. You look at it, and if you smile, you get a free ice cream. As of this morning, we've given out 6,000 ice creams. But we're scaling it, putting these machines in, and it's connected directly to a Facebook application.
If I can get the right balance of spending for what's next, along with the appropriate part of "D" spending with the consumer, then we'll get it. IAd is a perfect example. We've got a significant spend, but what it means is that we're in Apple with their engineers. Eventually they'll have production pods that they can give to advertising agencies to do it, but right now we're not at that stage.
When you see this, you realize mobile is big. When you see the interactive nature of the ads you can get on the iPhone, you can get with iAd, oh my God, it's like someone reinvented TV. It's as big as that. It's going to be massive.
Ad Age: Traditionally, that experimental spending has been a tough thing. It can get cut when times are tough, and the guy associated with it can become unpopular. How do prevent that from happening?
Mr. Weed: I'm 80 days into my job, so you have to see it through that lens. But the great news is that [Unilever CEO Paul Polman] and I think incredibly alike. Now, you could argue that's why he gave you the job, because you tend to agree with people who think like you.
I'm passionate about Unilever being consumer-centric. As far as I'm concerned, everything starts and everything ends with the consumer.
So when I'm engaging with Paul on what I want to do in the marketing area, I would say he has been nothing but supportive and encouraging. Right from day one when I wanted to make some changes, he said, "Great, get on with it." We need more bosses like that in the world.
Ad Age: One of your big competitors, P&G, did a big corporate branding program around the Winter Olympics for which they have some short-listed work at Cannes. Do you expect Unilever will do something similar?
Mr. Weed: We've been moving in this direction for a while. Five years ago, we started the One Unilever program. What it also did, which had a lot of cultural impact, was that it meant everybody worked for Unilever, [instead of years ago] these tribes within tribes.
The second thing that really explodes it is the internet. No longer can you really compartmentalize communication. One of the big changes in my role from my predecessor is that I'm chief marketing and communications officer, so I have internal and external communications reporting to me.
We've done a lot of work on piloting the Unilever brand overtly to consumers. We've picked three markets to do that: The U.K., the Netherlands -- neither of those should be a surprise, being an Anglo-Dutch company -- and Brazil to have a developing and emerging market example as well. And we've been running that for an extended period [with], I would have to say, very positive results.
People more and more want to know the company behind the brands that they're buying. Once people know those individual brands come from Unilever in those countries, the [favorability] scores go up.