Back row (from l.) Keith Bobier, Jen Bremner, Shane Kent and Brian Orlando.
Sure, Unilever won a cyber Grand Prix at Cannes last year for its Dove "Evolution" viral video. It got a remarkable 5.5 million viewers for its "In the Motherhood" online program for Suave in partnership with Sprint. Degree developed two original series of webisodes spun off from the TV series "24" in partnership with Fox. And Unilever launched the first telenovelas in webisode format through Caress via Univision.
But none of those was purely a digital campaign. Each was woven inextricably with other media and marketing tactics, such as TV spots, PR, content integration and shopper marketing.
"Digital is far from done in isolation," says Rob Master, North American media director. "It's part of a broader campaign. In many cases now it's the centerpiece of a broader campaign. I think that's become a real integral part of how we use the web, moving beyond just promoting web addresses in TV spots or print ads to really making them a critical part of the storytelling for the brands."
The degree to which digital is integrated into the mainstream of Unilever's marketing is clear in how the efforts are managed. "We don't have a digital-media person in the media organization," Mr. Master says. "But all of us are very fluent in digital."
Look at Laura Klauberg. The senior VP-global media has helped convey the importance of digital media both in her current role and previously as VP-media for the Americas. She stepped outside generational boundaries by joining Facebook and encouraging several Unilever colleagues to do so as well.
Nor have many of Unilever's most notable online efforts been handled by digital shops. The award-winning "Evolution" came from Ogilvy & Mather's Toronto office. Ogilvy will insist its hallways house a fully functioning digital shop, but the WPP Group-owned operation is a general creative agency. The digital-cum-branded-entertainment programs for Suave and Degree (and "24") came from WPP's MindShare Entertainment. Axe's "World's Dirtiest Film" competition came from Bartle Bogle Hegarty.
"We have a slew of agencies that support the brands, and all of which are increasing their exposure to digital," Mr. Master says.
His own experience may be increasingly typical for a Unilever marketer: digitally informed, if not specialized. After starting in the 1990s working for Taco Bell, Mr. Master moved to one of those classic Web 1.0 ventures, eHobbies (which, in nonclassic fashion, still exists).
Back in the fold
"I was employee No. 40," Mr. Master says. "We got up to 200 very quickly, and then there were 15 of us left. ... But I'd worked for big brands, and I felt like it was time for me to go back to big brands."
Mr. Master ended up on one of Unilever's biggest -- Dove -- where he was brand marketing manager in early 2005, when the brand did an integration for Dove Cool Moisture body wash on NBC's "The Apprentice." When Donald Trump told people to go to the Dove website, about 300 per second did, crashing the site.
"What we learned was that we're not a dot-com company," Mr. Master says. "So when we came back and did webisodes for Dove Night a year later with Felicity Huffman and Penny Marshall, we went and partnered with AOL, and they developed the site and the back end for it."
Subsequently, Unilever has had partners, including Yahoo and MSN, build and operate sites for its other digital ventures.
No time to tinker
But while Unilever looks to learn from its digital mistakes, it's banished "experimental" from the lexicon. Babs Rangaiah, director-global media planning for Unilever, said in an interview last year that "everything is changing so dramatically and so fast that if you do things just for the experimentation ... it doesn't give you as much learning as you had in the past. ... What I push for is to understand the space, so when you're doing your campaigns, you make them a part of it."
Of course, when it's all tied together, it's harder to evaluate how the digital piece works. Yet brand managers are convinced their programs are working.
Suave's "In the Motherhood" program with Sprint, via MindShare Entertainment, used integration on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" to drive women to inthemotherhood.com to tell their stories, some of which were developed by screenwriters into webisodes last spring.
Viewership of the webisodes was triple the original expectation of 1.8 million, says Piyush Jain, senior brand marketing manager for Suave.
"We did quantitative studies to understand how brand metrics moved for mothers exposed to 'In the Motherhood' vs. a control sample," Mr. Jain says. "Plus we tried to track how the brand share progressed. ... We've been surprised by how strong all the results were. ... The media value of the program far exceeded what we spent on it."
Suave has re-upped for year two, adding a layer of community features and new spokeswoman, Jenny McCarthy.
Degree, likewise, is in talks regarding a second year for its collaboration with Fox's "24," though thanks to the writers strike, that year may end up being 2009. The program attracted "millions of views," and users spent an average of five minutes per visit on the sites for a live-action, Degree-branded web series, "CTU Rookie," as well as Degree-branded "Day Zero," a "prequel" that ran last summer after the end of the series' seventh season, says Sam Chadha, marketing director-North American deodorants.
"Degree had a great year," he says, as sales were up more than 20%, as measured by Information Resources Inc., and Degree passed Procter & Gamble Co.'s Old Spice to become the No. 3 brand in the category, according to Unilever's all-channel ACNielsen data.
It's difficult to separate out the impact of the digital programs, Mr. Chadha says, adding, "This is one component of a big marketing plan for Degree for Men that did its part in the business success we had."
That digital programs like this keep entering their second and third years is one sign of Unilever's dedication to the space, Mr. Master says.
"We're developing programming that's committed and consistent year after year," he says, "which I think is different from brands just doing a bunch of programming on the web."
But the key to the digital efforts is what Mr. Master calls "superdistribution," the idea of getting web programs, most often video, picked up by other media -- most often for free.
"Evolution" is still the classic example. While it's gotten likely more than 20 million views on YouTube and other video sites, Ogilvy Chairman-CEO Shelly Lazarus says global viewership for the video is 400 million. That incorporates a lot of viewership via TV news and talk shows, classrooms and other forums.
"Really, superdistribution for us means [asking], 'Is the core of what you're doing big enough that it's going to be picked up in other channels such as PR, television, print, radio, etc., and be repurposed and replayed in those other channels?'" Mr. Master says. "We used to repurpose things from television for the internet. Now the ideas we have are so rich and creative ... we're able to feed that into all these other channels from digital."
In the end, the commitment to digital doesn't change the fundamentals much. If anything, he says, it means brand managers have to be more firmly grounded in what their brand is about, because if they don't define it clearly, millions of consumers in digital social media will -- possibly in ways the brand managers don't like.
"Almost inherent in what we do, I think, is the importance of storytelling for our brands," Mr. Master says. "A 30-second ad is a story we pull together for consumers on TV. Digital is an extension of that storytelling in typically longer format. And the richness of the stories we can tell is a very important part of the strategy."