Corporate brand inspiration from Unilever’s CEO

Guest post by Anne Charbonneau, our Managing Partner in Amsterdam.

Very inspiring interview with Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman in this month’s HBR (Subscription needed). Polmans’s goal? To double corporate revenue by 2020 while simultaneously halving the company’s environmental impact. “Nobody has ever made such a public commitment, and nobody has ever achieved anything like this.” he says. Since joining in late 2008, the company seems to be doing pretty well, esp. in terms of topline revenue growth.

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Here are 5 points that I think are worth reflecting on.

1. Day one decisions

Polman explained that on his first day in the job he decided to move from quarterly reporting to biannual reports, as we blogged on back in 2009 here. He says, “ I did it the day I started the job because I figured I couldn’t be fired on my first day”. Makes you think indeed about that window of opportunity that we all get, however modest, in our first few days or months in the job and that tend to dissolve as time goes on.

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2. Remember and refresh what made you famous

The new vision builds on the company’s founding values. “Brand social responsibility” as we call it is deep in Unilever’s DNA. Polman talks about the 19th century and founder William Lever. He invented a bar soap not just to make money, but to help solve massive hygiene problems endemic in Britain at that time, leading to 50 % of babies dying in their first year.

Actually, most FMCG brands created in the 19th century or early 20th century were created to help feed people better and more cheaply, or to help with basic needs. Somehow, if you look beyond ‘mature’ markets, those needs still exist in many places and need clever, new solutions.

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3. Shareholder vision

Polman talks eloquently about the shift in conversation with shareholders once you move from short term quarterly topics (what the weather slightly worst this spring? How did changes of Ramadan dates impacted our quarterly numbers?) to more mature discussion on long term strategy.

4. Consumers gaining votes

With 2 billions people using a Unilever brand everyday, you’d indeed think consumers can influence brand and companies decisions. Polman mentions how Ben & Jerry in the UK is supporting gay marriage in the UK, because the brand’s consumers are asking for this sort of engagement from ‘their brand’.

5. Corporate brands showing their face

With so much brave strategy going on across the product brands, I wonder if Unilever would and should start making their corporate brand more visible to consumers, working on multi-brand consumer initiatives to tell a story. This is what P&G is doing currently with the global ‘thank you mum’ campaign, co-signed by the key household brands of the company. And should we maybe expect Unilever’s logo might get a bit bigger on the back of packs in the coming months?

In conclusion, Polman’s bold and brave leadership shows how to have a corporate brand vision, not a bland vision.

More on Polman here, including the great quote from him about not minding if hedge funds sold Unilever’s shares because of worries over short-term profitability: “These hedge funds would sell their grandmother if they could make money. They are not people who are there in the long-term interests of the company.”