Unilever Youth Teach Vets the ABCs of Digital

Reverse Mentoring Aims to Keep Older Execs Up to Date

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Scrap the protractors and pencils and break out the mouse pads. At Unilever, homework is all about social networking, video games and YouTube.
Unilever's viral videos -- like the new 'Onslaught' commercial -- show digital savvy, but the package-goods giant's reverse-mentoring program is designed to make sure execs can keep up with current trends.
Unilever's viral videos -- like the new 'Onslaught' commercial -- show digital savvy, but the package-goods giant's reverse-mentoring program is designed to make sure execs can keep up with current trends.

As marketers struggle to keep pace with a rapidly changing media landscape, they are reaching out to young talent to help brands tap into the digitally savvy consumer. But how do you ensure valuable senior executives don't lag behind? One way is to institute a so-called reverse-mentoring program that pairs rookie marketing executives with senior execs, like the one Unilever USA introduced earlier this year.

Not that Unilever is stuck in the dark ages; the Dove brand's wildly successful viral-video-cum-commercial "Evolution," by Ogilvy & Mather, Toronto, has culled more than 10 million views on YouTube since last year and earned the film Grand Prix at the International Advertising Festival in Cannes, helping to generate major buzz for the follow-up video, "Onslaught," which broke last week (see this week's AdReview).

Staying current
Yet, said Gail Tifford, director-marketing excellence at Unilever North America, who helped create the new program, "we are constantly thinking of new ways to keep up with our consumers, especially with regard to the changing media landscape. So many of the young folks starting out seem to know so much more sometimes than many of us who are older and have been doing this a long time."

To that end, the reverse-mentoring program is designed to get the organization "up to date and involved in what's going on" in the world of digital marketing strategies, she said.

"The Trendslator" program (so dubbed because the young mentors are considered translators of media trends for the more-senior "students") began this past February with a pilot of 30 mentor-mentee pairs and is in the process of a broader rollout to be completed by the end of the year. The program has required a minimal investment in terms of dollars, though Unilever did purchase several laptop computers for a lending library that students can borrow to complete the program.

After an informal screening process, which consisted of a digital-savvy questionnaire with questions such as "Do you DVR television shows?" and "Do you have a MySpace or Facebook profile?" marketing senior VPs and directors were paired with in-the-know associate brand managers -- marketing staff who range from fresh out of business school to a few years into the job.

The requirements are minimal: two hours of monthly tutoring and a willingness to teach and/or learn. A core team of young associates creates the curriculum, which is designed not to be rigorous but to regularly immerse senior executives in the digital space, organizers said.

For example, one of the first assignments involved teaching senior executives the marketing value of social communities. Their task: creating personal profile pages.

Mike Fortner, a 25-year old associate brand manager for Sunsilk, is a program mentor. He recalls sitting in meetings discussing ideas for viral campaigns and looking around the room to realize some of the more senior executives weren't exactly getting it. "They're kinda nodding their heads, but they're not as familiar with it as someone who is on Facebook or MySpace every single day."

Thanks to Mr. Fortner, his "student," Kevin B. George, 39, VP-general manager of Unilever's deodorant business, now has his own Facebook profile and is active in various Facebook groups.

"I come from a generation where I'm not as comfortable putting stuff out there," Mr. George said. But the various digital media the reverse-mentoring program is exposing him to "spark a whole different conversation about what consumers are actually into and how to engage him or her in a two-way dialogue," Mr. George said.

YouTube immersion
In another session, Mr. George was required to undergo a so-called YouTube immersion, as Mr. Fortner showed his student how to create a video, upload it online and later crosslink it with MySpace to post it on a profile page. "It's something you'll find a lot of consumers doing. If they find an ad that is really funny or something, they can go to YouTube and link it to their page; Kevin now knows how to do that," Mr. Fortner said.

Mr. George likes the idea that the program is "embedding into the DNA of the organization how to create digital brands."

"It serves as a chance for me to learn as well," Mr. Fortner said. "It has been a really fun and informative program so far."

The benefit of the program is twofold, as "it gives junior marketing people a chance to show a senior director or senior VP what their skills are" and gives them the "opportunity to have face time with some of our senior marketing personnel across categories," Ms. Tifford said, adding that the company is considering quantifying the program's dividends in coming financial reports.

Coming sessions Mr. Fortner has planned include a Second Life immersion and a session on gaming. "Then I want to introduce Kevin to the world of underground indie rock," Mr. Fortner said.

Mr. George's response: "I can't wait!"

The student becomes the teacher

Want to set up your own reverse-mentoring program? Here are some pointers from Unilever's Gail Tifford:

Design a program that fits the culture of your organization. In Unilever's case the program provided participants with lighthearted assignments and allowed for flexibility, helping it to be better received among employees.

Make it voluntary. Engage only those employees who want to participate in the program, so that they will be willing to commit the time necessary.

Provide a flexible framework for the program. Have the mentor/mentee set goals for what they hope to accomplish from the program so that this is clear from the onset. But, keep it flexible to account for varying skill levels and scheduling issues.

Start small. Getting a core group of people buzzing about the program makes a companywide rollout later that much easier.

Solicit feedback. Ask those involved for their input so that you can continually improve upon and evolve the program to keep material fresh.
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