Unilever Global Marketing and Communications Officer Keith Weed was expected to announce the not-for-profit WaterWorks partnership with Facebook and Population Services International during a presentation at the International Advertising Festival in Cannes on Friday morning.
Through a Facebook app and the website, joinwaterworks.com, users can donate between 10 euro cents to 1 euro daily (about $1.27) via Facebook Credits (or ultimately other means). They can direct contributions to individual WaterWorkers, who will distribute Unilever's PureIt water purification products. In their newsfeeds, they'll get photos and updates both from the aid workers and the people and villages they help.
It's a social-media twist on a charitable-marketing approach long used by another Unilever sustainability partner -- Save the Children. And in an interview Thursday before his talk, Mr. Weed said the program has been embraced personally by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, who met with him and other members of the social-network's client council earlier this week in Cannes.
Beyond goodwill, it's not clear how much Unilever or Facebook benefit financially from WaterWorks. Facebook is phasing out Credits, so introducing more users to it won't be strategic. Though the program will include Facebook ads, it's run through the Unilever Foundation, a not-for-profit arm that reports to Mr. Weed, who also oversees sustainability efforts.
Asked how WaterWorks helps Unilever's brands and business, Mr. Weed said: "Not at all."
That's probably what tax collectors want to hear, since the Unilever Foundation is a tax-free not-for-profit. It may not be what shareholders want. But Unilever likely does get some benefit, beyond the warm feeling.
The company gets 54% of its sales from developing markets today, among the highest ratios among any global marketer. Water is one of the biggest and most life-threatening problems facing Unilever's consumers there.
"The biggest killer in the world still is water-borne diseases," Mr. Weed said. "Every 20 seconds a child dies of water-borne diseases."
In Mumbai, he said, people only get two hours of public running water daily. "They move water around the city, and if the water is on between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., that 's when you're day starts. … That's now. What happens when there are 2.5 billion more people?"
Since announcing its water goal in November 2010, Unilever is 40 million people on its way toward its goal. "So between now and 2020, I've got quite a lot to do to get to 500 million," Mr. Weed said. "I decided the only way to do this is to get to the masses … through charitable work. And we started discussions with Facebook to co-create this idea."
Facebook has attracted plenty of critics lately, but Mr. Weed isn't among them. "I'm a great supporter of social media generally and Facebook specifically," he said. "Certainly we have found ways that the Ben & Jerrys of the world or local brands like Marmite can engage beyond the 30-second ad."
As he sees it, if bigger brands don't get the scale to make Facebook a major piece of the marketing mix, some of the blame may lie with marketers. "What we need to get our mind around is we need to develop creative for social media," he said. "Social media by design, and why care/why share are all very important things."
More broadly, digital is still trumped by TV and traditional media broadly in Unilever's marketing budgets, though in the U.S. he said it matches the roughly 30% share that consumers spend in media time online. In India, where consumers spend 4% of their media time online, the digital share is more like 4%, he said.
Can he envision a world where digital becomes the bulk of spending for the world's second-biggest advertiser? Yes, Mr. Weed said, but first marketing and the world will have to change a bit.
"Our biggest challenge is to have always-on quality content, which is cost effective," he said. "Right now you can pick two of the three, but you can't get all three. You can be always on and quality, but it's going to cost me money. Or you can be always on and cost effective, but you're not going to have quality."
Unilever's content partnerships with the likes of Viacom and News Corp., he said, are part of addressing that challenge. Another challenge is making mobile marketing work, addressing the mode by which the next two billion consumers in the world will likely get online, he said.
And the third change is the convergence of digital and traditional media, which may render the question moot by eliminating the distinction. "I can imagine in the next few years the distinction between traditional and digital disappears, because whatever you have on your device will also be on your TV," Mr. Weed said. "The moving picture on a flat screen is alive and well," he said, by whatever means it's delivered.
Of course, the digital revolution may have to wait until delegates leave Cannes. Mr. Weed originally planned to invite the Cannes audience to sign up directly for WaterWorks, displaying the profiles of people who did so instantly on the screen. Given the reality of spotty wireless and internet connections in Cannes, however, he may scrap that part of the presentation -- but Unilever will still match the contributions made by the audience.