Dove's "evolution" video in 2006 generated hundreds of millions of viral views and received many creative awards. The parent company's evolution has been a bit rockier.
Unilever had some digital successes on other products, too, but results were far from universal. So in early 2008, the company sent U.S. media executive Babs Rangaiah to London to help build a digital capability that was truly global. The appointments of Paul Polman as CEO a year later and of Keith Weed as chief marketing officer in 2010 meant more senior leaders committed to ramping up digital.
During the past two years, dozens of Unilever senior executives have made pilgrimages to Silicon Valley and the Consumer Electronics Show. The company appointed a digital roster from which all global brands have chosen shops, as well as a digital advisory board. Spending on digital doubled, to 13% of overall marketing outlays.
Unilever also has put 2,000 marketers through its digital training academy and opened media labs for its eight recently reconfigured regions. It established a global social-listening platform through Sysomos and public-relations agencies, consolidated a hodgepodge of efforts into Facebook pages for Dove and other global brands, and added e-commerce links to its websites.
While the focus has been on process, the overall long-term goal is achieving more creative breakthroughs like "Evolution" and making digital a reliable brand-builder the way TV has been, according to Mr. Rangaiah.
The push is beginning to be reflected in the bottom line. Speaking to investors in December, Mr. Weed outlined digital programs for Bertolli, Starbucks Ice Cream, Ragu and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter that had generated $2.69 to $3.58 in sales for each dollar spent.
Unilever wants much more, however.
"To this day, most of what you see is banners and buttons and pre-rolls -- translations from old media to new," Mr. Rangaiah said. He likens it to the early days of radio, when broadcasters read newspaper stories until an RCA middle manager, David Sarnoff, persuaded superiors to air a heavyweight boxing match.
"Just like David Sarnoff, there are going to be some people at some companies, hopefully ours, that are going to reframe the space," Mr. Rangaiah said. "Media companies will be part of that , too."
With Facebook having a few thousand employees and 800 million users, "getting really top-notch service was a challenge in markets around the world," Mr. Rangaiah said. "Working with them has gotten us great client service" and access to insights not available to all marketers, he added.
Owned content and earned media are growing parts of the equation for Unilever brands.
Last month, a Dove Hair Spa for the Facebook version of Sims was added by more than 200,000 of 20 million players within a few weeks, Mr. Rangaiah said. The Magnum Pleasure Seekers game, integrated with such brands as Samsung and YouTube, produced the most-tweeted URL in the world the day it launched in April. It has had millions of plays since.
And the Axe brand has launched apps in the past year that let users digitally memorialize their nights out (à la "Hangover") or arrange wake-up calls from sultry-sounding women.
Such programs are reshaping how Unilever, the world's No. 2 advertising spender, budgets its marketing dollars.
"To get earned media, you need to create great assets in the digital space," Mr. Rangaiah said. "The idea is that by creating great earned impressions, you can take from the paid impressions. And if that 's your strategy, you need to shift your budget. That's not an easy thing to do. ... It takes a lot of proposals and perseverance. But it goes a long way toward backing up your strategy."