Consumer packaged goods giant Unilever has been in the spotlight this year, joining competitors like Procter & Gamble in curtailing its ad spending on digital media as the channel continues to be rife with transparency issues. However, at the Advertising Week conference in New York City on Monday, CMO Keith Weed extolled on the essential quality of digital marketing and how search and mobile, in particular, are necessary tools to making connections with consumers today.
"The success formula that got so many consumer good brands to where they are now is changing radically," he said. "What's happened in this ever-changing world is you don't need the big TV budget. In fact, you can do marketing pay-as-you-go on digital."
The executive laid out the five-point framework of how Unilever thinks about its marketing strategy as defined by what he called the "Five Cs": content, connect, community and commerce, with consumers in the center tying them together. Those consumers, Weed noted, are becoming more impatient with the palm-of-your-hand convenience of mobile, ramping up pressure on brands to create optimized, context-relevant advertising. That pressure is only compounded by digital media's overly complex and non-transparent supply chain, Weed said in comments that echoed those of P&G's Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard from early this year.
"The trouble with our murky situation is the consumers have to wade their way through it, and if they have a rubbish experience they are indeed going to walk away from the very advertising that supports all these great platforms," Weed said. "There are already 600 million people ad blocking, and in the Western world, 50% of people have [subscription streaming] TV. If this isn't a wake-up call to the industry, I don't know what is.
We've really got to engage with this idea that today it's about real-time, in-the-language, in-the-culture connection and we've got to make sure that when we connect, we do this first through mobile and search," he added.
Switching up search
Search might seem an obvious tactic to call out, as it's long been a staple of digital marketing and platforms like Google, but old methods of outreach — like those focused on the brand name above all else — aren't as effective as they once were. In a world where major packaged goods companies and retailers are being outplayed by e-commerce upstarts that no longer need the massive budgets or marketing plays to win over shoppers, pivoting to a utility-minded approach is one way Unilever's managed to stay competitive.
"On the topic of search, we've moved from targeting searches to enabling finders," Weed said. This means making sure Axe is the top item that appears when someone is looking for dry deodorant recommendations — not the sexiest form of advertising but one that works.
"As people, we think about function [...] that switch to function has actually increased our traffic on search by 30% for only [an] 11% increase in investment," Weed said. "It's made a huge change in what we're doing."
Offering practical value will only become more necessary for brands looking to stake out territory with voice, which Weed forecast as the next "critical" search channel. He showcased Unilever's Alexa integrations, including its "Cleanipedia" skills — which offer quick solutions to problems like red wine spills — and real-time recipe suggestions as examples of how brands can connect with consumers and deliver on their value in an intuitive way through voice.
Beyond opening a more direct line of engagement for Unilever, digital has even started to shape its product innovation. Leveraging social listening along with search, some of its brands have been able to tap into data to paint a more detailed portrait of one of the five Cs — community — and let that community guide what they create next.
"The beauty now with social listening is we can actually hear what people are talking about in real time with a view to understand better what's going on," Weed said. He contrasted this to the historical way of how brands gather information by asking consumers questions, which can lead to biased or inaccurate responses. "It's going to be the data-enabled companies that are going to win as a new way of engaging and understanding how people shop in our categories and how people use our brands."
Lipton, in a case study shown by Weed, spotted the blossoming presence of the Japanese tea matcha on social media. Eager to capitalize on this, the brand then mined two years of data on search and social platforms to key into the roots of the trend in the U.S. — it turned out to be Los Angeles — and also the influencers boosting its popularity — namely wellness-minded, affluent women.
That data and those influencers helped Lipton feel out the right color and design for its own matcha offering and Unilever's first social media-inspired product was on store shelves in just seven months, eventually doubling the size of the tea's category in the U.S. The popularity of Lipton's matcha extended to marketing around the blend, as a 360-degree YouTube video promoting it has racked up over 6.6 million views.
"With that social listening, we've found whole new ways of understanding about products and indeed sources of innovation as well," Weed said.
Marketing with purpose
More bleeding edge experiences like Lipton's 360-degree YouTube ad underscore the creative windows mobile-ready technologies open. Another way companies might create content and advertising that act as their own draw is imbuing an overarching purpose or idea into the messaging that consumers can buy into. Weed pointed to Unilever brands like Dove, which has helped lead the charge of body-positive and self-esteem marketing, and Ben & Jerry's with its focus on ethically-sourced ingredients.
"Those brands are growing faster than the rest," he said. "People quite simply reject brands that do not engage with their values."
Knowing when to deploy content is just as vital as producing it, however, and again reinforces how marketers must keep ever-more impatient — read, "mobile-first" — consumers in mind.
"We've all developed the most marvelous bulls--- filters," Weed said. "And especially when you've got mobile, you haven't got the time to engage. You've got to serve people up at the right time and in the right way.
Brand experience and the shopping experience have come together," he added later. "We're on our phone, we're on our laptop, we're having a brand experience and then we purchase. But it has to be friction-free — the user experience is the most critical thing here."