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‘There has never been a more exciting time to be a marketer’


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As he gears up to address India’s top CMOs at the CMO League in Mumbai on Tuesday, Simon Clift, former global CMO, Unilever talks to IMPACT about the need for marketers to invest in digital media to address consumer concerns in the new world


Q] Social messages were the talking point behind this year’s Cannes award-winning ads. What are the new ways in which brands can take up citizens’ concerns?

For companies built up during the 50-year old unthinking tyranny of TV advertising, the question “What comes next after television?” already poses enormous challenges. But an even more interesting consequence of the revolution brought about by digital technology results from the fact that consumers now have a vast amount of information available at the sweep of a mobile phone. This is gradually changing the whole relationship, the power balance between brands and consumers.


This represents an enormous cultural change for companies that is proving hard for them to get their heads around. Because it is making it possible for consumers — with a bit of creativity and access to the internet — to make their views known on a whole range of issues that a company might consider peripheral or inconvenient (Think Nike and sweatshops, or Apple and Chinese factory conditions). So it is unsurprising that social and environmental issues are taking a playing a bigger role in what keeps marketers awake at night. And for me, it explains why one of the increasingly important characteristics of successful global brands is that they are based on a purposeful proposition.


This doesn’t have to mean they embrace some messianic vision to save the world, it simply means that the brand exists — and is seen to exist — to improve the lives of consumers and stakeholders in some small but important way.


Unilever is a company founded on a strong sense of purpose from its very origins. Factories in Victorian Britain were nasty, dangerous places, and William Lever realised that by making soap available more cheaply to workers he could reduce disease, improve health and at the same time build a business. It wasn’t about charity - it was about building a sustainable business that improved life for its consumers and stakeholders. For the purpose to be relevant, it must be intrinsic to the fundamental proposition of the brand - not some bolted on ‘good cause’.


Consumers can usually easily spot that an unrelated ‘cause’ is either insincere or at best peripheral. American Express’s support for small businesses for example is at the core of what their brand stands for. Their activities in breast cancer, however worthy, seem to me to be less relevant.


Dove’s purpose of showing the beauty in real women, or Surf Excel’s philosophy that ‘Dirt is Good’ (because it is only getting dirty that kids develop and learn) are other examples.


Q] Can you share any big learning experiences in digital marketing from your tenure as Global CMO of Unilever?

One of the key learning experiences in digital marketing for me was that there is a ‘fear factor’ among managers who simply aren’t familiar enough with the tools. There is a whole generation of senior marketers, responsible for some pretty big budgets, who just don’t understand how social media works. I call this the “lost generation”; too old to have been brought up as digital natives, but not yet with children old enough to have trained them in using social media!


I once shared a speaking platform with Rudy Giuliani in which he said that actually using these digital tools yourself is part of being educated nowadays, and I wholeheartedly agree. So it’s worth investing money in immersing your teams in hands-on training, and in ‘reverse mentoring’ where you get young, switched-on employees brought up in a world where digital has always existed, to teach the oldies how it works. It can be a bit challenging in countries with a very hierarchical business culture, but all the more energising for that!


The other big learning is that empowered through digital technology, it is consumers who set the agenda. I experienced this very personally when a piece of advertising for Dove about building women’s self esteem was parodied by consumer activists wishing to draw attention to the fact that the palm oil in Dove was from non-sustainable sources.


We felt we were doing something positive by embracing a worthy cause through Dove, but we forgot the crucial lesson that it’s now consumers who are in charge. The video parody was seen by twice as many people as the original company-sponsored film! (Unilever has now committed to purchase all palm oil from certified sustainable sources by 2015. So you have to say it worked!)


Q] As compared to the US and UK, India has low Internet penetration and is still getting used to the idea of the digital medium. How do you see the scope for brands on the digital platform in India?

I appreciate that digital is at a different stage in India because of low internet penetration, but I believe that the canny marketer will see this as an opportunity to get a head start in adapting their brand’s communication to the new world, rather than an excuse to hide their head in the sand. And as is always the case, there are some examples of developing countries leapfrogging developed markets, as in the case of telephones for example where many Chinese or Indian consumers first experience of a phone is mobile rather than fixed line.


Q] What key points will you be putting across at the CMO League? What kind of debate do you think will come out of them?

There has probably been more change in the last 15 years than in the previous 50. All of the enormous changes we are confronting, in the fragmentation of media, in the rise of social and environmental concerns and in the rapid globalization of companies’ organizations represent enormous challenges to today’s marketers.


For many companies the speed of change has far outpaced their ability to meet it. In markets where these changes are at an earlier stage of development there may even be a sense of complacency. And things can change with breathtaking speed. When I worked in Brazil in the late 90s, environmental issues were seem as a rich country’s indulgence. Now, little more than 10 years later, environmental factors are very high up in the list of consumer concerns there.


Some five years ago, at Unilever, a highly capable Indian manager confided in me that when senior execs talked about the environment it made them come across as a bit ‘soft and silly, not serious about business’. And yet I am convinced that Unilever’s ambitious Sustainable Living Plan has been an important factor in its improved performance in the last couple of years, and of a corresponding growth in its stock price.


I want to share my view that these dauntingly complex challenges will affect all of us, and, because of them not despite them, there has never been a more exciting time to be a marketer.



The CMO League, a first-of-its-kind exclusive club for marketers, has been designed to bring together the country’s top marketers to discuss issues faced in their respective organizations today. Through power dinners, roundtables and summits involving marketing industry leaders from around the world, this initiative by exchange4media Group creates a platform for effective dialogue. 

The inaugural edition was held in Delhi in February this year, and had Canadian business executive, author, consultant and speaker, Don Tapscott, as the guest speaker.

The membership of the club is by invitation and is open to individuals holding a current CMO or Marketing Director or an equivalent position, reporting to a CEO of a company with an annual turnover of not less than Rs 1,000 crore ($200 million). 

To request an invite to the Mumbai event, 

email nidhi.arora@exchange4media.com


Feedback: sneha.ullal@exchange4media.com

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