FEATURE27 October 2014

A man with purpose

Features Impact People

Unilever’s chief marketing and communication officer, Keith Weed, is looking for continuous innovation in all aspects of marketing and wants insight to lead the way. By Jane Simms.



If you’re having Keith Weed round for dinner, be careful what you leave in your bathroom cabinet. “The first thing I do when I visit anyone’s house is go to the bathroom, lock the door and have a good dig around in the cupboards,” he admits. “I’m fascinated by what’s in the back gathering dust, and what’s at the front, being used.”

This kind of curiosity about people’s lives and habits is an essential attribute of all good marketers and researchers, believes Weed, chief marketing and communication officer (CMCO) of Unilever, the world’s second biggest advertiser. Indeed, he thinks some marketing has become too remote from the people it’s meant to be serving, and, in a similar vein to Unilever’s long-running Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, he’s on a bit of a campaign of his own – for ‘marketing to real people’.

People are human beings, not consumers, he insists. “They’re not a pair of armpits in search of a deodorant or a head of hair in search of shampoo. You can’t compartmentalise their lives. They are real people and we need to understand them in the round, what they do and why, and the role brands play and could play in their lives.”

Brands for life

He wants Unilever’s brands to play a bigger role in people’s lives than ever before, and is spearheading a drive to grow the number of €1bn brands, like Dove, Flora, Magnum and Surf. But size and scale aren’t everything: big global brands will also be tailored to local markets and have real depth.
The strategy for achieving this ambition is called ‘crafting Brands for Life’, which aims to build brands based on deep consumer insight that resonate with and engage people beyond the functional and emotional level.

“Brands can become real solutions for our broader lives,” believes Weed, citing the Persil/Omo Dirt is Good campaign, which runs advice and research programmes to encourage active development and outdoor play, as an example.

“The fact that ‘Persil washes whiter’ is no longer enough,” he claims. “It’s like going to the same parties and having the same person tell you exactly the same jokes time and time again. You just want to walk away. Similarly with brands: you need to give people something deeper to get them to engage, and people are interested in things like child development, learning and getting dirty through play.”

And the strategy seems to be working. The market shares of brands such as Dove, Persil and Ben and Jerry’s are growing, he says: “These are big brands with clear purposeful messages and they engage beyond the superficial. David Jones [former CEO of Havas] said recently that we need to move from ‘marketing to consumers’ to ‘mattering to people’, and he’s absolutely right.”

Building purpose

A career Unilever man, Weed has marketed and run various different parts of the business over the past 30 years. But as CMCO of Unilever, he has spent much of the past four and a half years steadily building ‘purpose’ into both the Unilever brand and the individual product brands. Part of that purpose is to do with sustainability – and leading the company’s sustainability, environmental and social work falls within his remit.

“One of the first things I did when I took the CMCO job was to cancel the CSR department,” he says. “Everything they did we now embed into our brands, helping to give them purpose and depth, and at the same time avoiding the dilemma that companies struggle with of having marketing in one corner selling as much as it can, communications in another corner showing pictures of products helping starving children, and sustainability in another corner trying to save the planet – all working in isolation, rather than together. I have pulled it all together into a new business model. We can respond to consumers’ lives with brands that are relevant and resonant, and have sustainability at their core.”

Weed is the driving force behind the ambitious Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, launched at the end of 2010 by CEO Paul Polman. The company aims to halve its environmental impact, sustainably source all its agricultural raw materials and improve the health and wellbeing of more than one billion people
Research showed that about two-thirds of Unilever’s environmental footprint comes from how consumers use and dispose of its products, and last November the company launched its biggest ever consumer-facing Unilever brand campaign, Project Sunlight, promoting the sustainability message in all its global markets to encourage behaviour change and consumer engagement with Unilever and its brands.

Weed appears to be genuinely passionate about sustainability. “Industry can be part of the solution,” he says, explaining that a new campaign for Lifebuoy in developing markets highlights how washing your hands with soap can stop infectious diseases spreading.
“When people say, ‘what’s the business case for sustainability?’ I say, ‘show me a business case for the alternative’,” he says.

The sustainability challenge is just one of four major trends that are changing the world, believes Weed. The other three are the demographic and economic shift from the northern and western corners of the globe to the south and east, the shift from rural to urban living and the shift from linear to digital communications. Such shifts demand a new approach to business, strategy, branding and research.
“Insight is moving toward foresight; we have to get to the future first,” he says. “If research can help find innovative solutions to some of the big human, social and economic challenges we are facing, it will be of increasing value in strengthening the partnership between consumers and companies like ours.”

Big insights and big data

But when it comes to qualitative research, it seems many researchers need to catch up with the present.
“Qualitative research is not as good as it might be,” he says. “Consumer and Market Insights (CMI) is a combination of qualitative and quantitative research. You can’t ignore the numbers – and developments such as digital and ‘big data’ mean we have more numbers than ever before – but you have to balance that with the insights, subtleties and shades of grey that only qualitative research can give you. We need big insights as well as big data, and that’s what’s currently lacking.”

Weed’s frustration with the quality of qualitative research led Unilever to establish a global programme of accreditation for qualitative researchers, which was rolled out to the UK in 2012.
“We are a big buyer of qualitative research – we spend over £50 million on it annually and use more than 400 agencies – but although we kept asking for them, there were no benchmarks and quality wasn’t improving, so we felt the only way to address the problem was to tackle it ourselves,” he explains.
There have been clear benefits, he says. “It has added value to our own research and to the industry as a whole. Individuals are putting their accredited status on their CVs and other clients want to share our list of accredited individuals. However, we don’t want to be policing it, so we are now working with other clients and industry leaders to try to outsource it.” The Market Research Society is among the industry leaders working with it.

From straight insight to inspiration and provocation

So what role should research play in a more complex global and digital world, where sustainability has to be built into everything you do? “It’s not about producing straight insight anymore,” says Weed. “It’s moving toward inspiration and provocation. We need more breakthroughs and transformational actions, so market research can’t be passive; it has to help marketers. Researchers also need to understand people, rather than treating them purely as consumers of products.”

CMI is part of Weed’s remit at Unilever because he believes in the inherent role of market research in building brands. But while insight isn’t infallible – “if it was, we’d all have 100% market share” – he won’t be drawn on the fallibility or infallibility of the insight that informed Unilever’s controversial ‘Path to Growth’ strategy in the early 2000s, which involved a drastic rationalisation of its portfolio to focus on ‘power brands’.

“Path to Growth was a step in the evolution of the Unilever portfolio, and we’ve re-learnt from that experience that you do need a portfolio of brands – big and small, niche and scale players. One brand can’t deliver everything in every market and in our current globalisation drive we won’t be ignoring the role of small brands.”

“Adolescent boys in Mumbai have more in common with adolescent boys in New York and Shanghai than they do with their own families in Mumbai. But you need to tailor your marketing to penetrate the culture and be relevant.”

Striking the correct balance between global and local marketing is a challenge for all global brands, and there is no blueprint. Unilever uses a mixture of niche and local agencies to help determine and implement its strategy. “It’s horses for courses,” says Weed, adding that just “thinking differently” can help to reconcile the global versus local dichotomy. The kind of global brands that he envisages for Unilever are not ones that cater to the lowest common denominator, but ones that, with local tailoring, appeal to large numbers of like-minded people in different countries.

“It’s about finding what different groups of people in different countries have in common,” he says. “For example, adolescent boys in Mumbai have more in common with adolescent boys in New York and Shanghai than they do with their own families in Mumbai. But you need to tailor your marketing to penetrate the culture and be relevant. We reconcile those global and local elements by having brand developers who work across markets and brand builders who work in markets to focus on the nuances.”
Global versus local isn’t the only dichotomy modern marketers have to wrestle with. Another is science versus art – or, in Weed’s parlance, logic versus magic.

Encouraging risk-taking

“We need more logic and more magic; it’s not a playoff of one against the other,” he says. “But what I’m trying to do at Unilever at the moment is encourage more creativity and risk taking, which involves a shift of mindset.” He believes that many marketers have lost sight of the fundamentals of good marketing – that is, an unerring focus on consumers and brands – and thinks that developments such as ‘digital’ and ‘big data’ are partly to blame, because people see them as ends in themselves rather than tools in the marketing toolkit.

Yet he is a huge fan of digital marketing – provided it is intelligently executed. “The digital revolution allows the kind of direct connection with consumers that only retailers have had in the past, and it allows creativity and effectiveness at the same time,” he says, pointing to the success of its hair styling videos All Things Hair on its YouTube channel as an example. Unilever and Google track hair-related searches to predict hair styling trends and use ‘vloggers’ to produce videos that allow people to create the new styles, using Unilever products, in their own homes. “Something like that has real utility,” says Weed. “It’s a really cool application of big data to create big insight.”

TV advertising remains the biggest and most powerful way to engage with people, and is likely to be so for the foreseeable future, predicts Weed, yet he has led the company into the digital arena – literally in some cases, with trips for the marketing team to Hollywood (to learn about content) and Silicon Valley. He recently announced that Unilever is putting mobile at the heart of its emerging markets strategy, because of its high penetration in those markets and the ability it affords to personalise communication at scale.

However, he is concerned about the potential technology has to fragment brands because of companies’ tendency to hire specialists dedicated to a wide range of different channels. Unless the industry orchestrates things so as to reinstate the brand as ‘hero’, brands themselves will be fragmented, he fears.

Consumer as king, product as hero

Weed, a consummate marketer, is also an ambassador for marketing within Unilever and the industry as a whole. While that is of benefit to Unilever and to marketing, what has kept him loyal to the company for so long? After all, the average turnover for marketing heads is a couple of years. “I’m a believer in longevity,” he says. “Had I moved on after running the laundry and household care business after two years it would have been questionable whether or not I had turned it round. I did it for five years and that division is really successful now. I had to re-establish the idea of consumer as king, product as hero, and rebuild the business from the ground up and the top down – and you can’t do that in a short period of time. It was the same at Elida Gibbs, where I stayed for five years and oversaw the merger with Faberge. You learn from putting things in place and driving them through.”

He’s put lots of things in place in his current role, but feels the biggest challenge to the need for continuous innovation is to keep attracting the best and brightest marketers in the face of mounting competition from the big digital companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook.

He and his fellow marketers at Unilever are certainly doing their bit. Unilever’s reputation is second only to Google’s in terms of companies being searched in relation to ‘marketing’ on LinkedIn, he says, and is now first when it comes to ‘sustainability’. What’s more, the company’s haul of awards and accolades for marketing creativity and effectiveness grows by the month.

“I strive for excellence and am passionate about the best marketing, and to do that you need the best insights,” he says. “Getting recognition for that attracts the best marketers and market researchers to work with us. In July last year, for example, Stan Sthanunathan joined us as senior vice-president Consumer and Market Insights, from a similar role in Coca-Cola. I’m thrilled to have him as part of the team and it gives us a real step up in CMI.”

Life may be more challenging now, but it’s infinitely more interesting, which makes it a very exciting time to be in marketing and consumer insight, he concludes. “We are going through a real revolution.”

This article originally appeared in Impact magazine, Issue 7 October 2014.


8 years ago

I'm disappointed that you criticized qualitative research as a whole industry. I am sure that some suppliers are indeed horrid and not worthy of the name, but so are many quantitative suppliers. I DO like taking advantage of accreditation and knowing how to find those suppliers who provide high quality work is key here.

Like Report

8 years ago

This is a really refreshing and forward looking piece. As a generalisation, up to now consumers have been behind the curve and sceptical about corporations claiming the ethical high ground and in turn brand marketers have been timid in building such associations into brand identity. In order to get through this impasse what has been lacking is courage by brand owners to challenge this scepticism. Consumers need to be provoked out of their diffidence and to merge marketing and corporate responsibility is an inspiring step towards this

Like Report