Ad Age Digital Conference

What Orangutans Taught Simon Clift About Social Media

CMO Says Unilever Is Still Trying to Shake Mind-set of One-Way Communications

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NEW YORK ( -- Unilever is only starting to understand social media, but it's already learned plenty about its capability to make and break brands -- sometimes the hard way, said Chief Marketing Officer Simon Clift at the Advertising Age Digital Conference today.

Simon Clift
Simon Clift Credit: Gary He
He pointed to Julia Allison's rise from obscurity via her video blog, NonSociety, and other social tools, which he said shows "what's possible with no resources, no agency and, dare I say, no talent." She's also a lesson for a $50 billion-plus behemoth like Unilever, Mr. Clift said. "It is possible to become famous on a dollar and a dream. Imagine what's possible to do with our brands and our resources."

On the other hand, Mr. Clift acknowledged that in social media, Unilever -- past digital accolades or no -- has fallen back at times on the same one-way-communications mind-set it's long applied to traditional media, only to learn that one-way communications are impossible. "We may be ahead of some of our competitors," Mr. Clift said. "But we're most definitely behind consumers."

Full Coverage of the 2009 Ad Age Digital Conference

Case in point was the hijacking of "Onslaught," Dove's follow-up to the massively viral "Evolution" video, by Greenpeace, which produced a parody, "Onslaught(er)," that skewered Dove and Unilever for their role in razing Indonesian rainforests through their purchases of palm oil. Mr. Clift became aware of the issue when he saw Greenpeace protesters in orangutan suits scaling the walls of the company's Lever House headquarters in London last summer. Ultimately the parody got 705,000 views to the original's 405,000 -- and helped lead Unilever to talk with Greenpeace and adopt new targets for sustainable palm-oil sourcing.

"The speed of change really has far outpaced our ability to accompany it," Mr. Clift said. "I, for one, am in awe of the new challenges that the media revolution poses. But ... I believe it can force greater change on the conventional marketing model than most people in consumer package goods actually believe."

2009 Ad Age Digital Conference - Day 2
2009 Ad Age Digital Conference
Day 2

The problem with big budgets
Big budgets may be more of a hindrance than a help for many package-goods brands coming up with ideas that resonate with consumers, Mr. Clift said -- though he hastened to add that that shouldn't be read as a signal that Unilever plans to slash marketing spending on traditional media anytime soon. "I'm not suggesting that paid media has had its day," he said.

But he said when Unilever recently selected a roster of global public-relations agencies and asked them to submit their best-practice case studies, "one of the characteristics of all the best case studies was 'We didn't have any budget to do advertising.' ... I'm convinced fat media budgets help make people lazy, and we've thought about [whether we] should cut media budgets on some specific projects in order to force people to come up with ideas."

The result of such an approach can be to turn Unilever the behemoth into a sometimes surprisingly effective guerrilla social marketer. Pot Noodle in the U.K., for example, got wind of a really expensive Guinness internet ad reported to be the most expensive TV commercial ever made in the U.K. So the perennially scrappy brand of belly-stuffing noodles looked to make buzz of its own on St. Patrick's Day 2008 with a "a 75-second film which is filmed in a less-exotic location in a West London housing project on a much smaller product." Pot Noodle's "Tipping Pot" outperformed Guinness' big-budget "Domino" substantially in terms of YouTube views, he said.

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