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
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
"The biggest killer in the world still is water-borne diseases,"
Mr. Weed said. "Every 20 seconds a child dies of water-borne
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
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
"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.