Who’s right about corporate branding P&G or Unilever? Or neither?

Came across an interesting post on corporate branding by former P&G CMO turned consultant Jim Stengel. Jim has my dream gig: marketing professor at UCLA Business School. The post was prompted by one of his lectures by fellow former CEO, Simon Clift of Unilever.

Jim and Simon were debating approaches to corporate branding at their two former companies, both of which are increasing investment in this area. The debate was triggered by the much-discussed conflict between Dove's campaign for real beauty and the Axe/Lynx campaigns that make heavy use of scantily glamour models.

Jim thinks this is bad, as he believes "Each brand in a multi-brand company needs to not only live under the parent company’s beliefs and values, it needs to actively trumpet them in its own voice, in its own style." He suggests P&G's Olay and Old Spice do a better job of reconciling product and corporate brand values.

Simon "feels the light-hearted nature of the Axe/Lynx work is not inconsistent with Unilever’s core values, and that it does not represent a conflict with the Brand Ideal of Dove."

Well, here is some of Dove's marketing on the issue of "Real Beauty":

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And here are images of Lynx's latest UK campaign about avoiding "Premature Perspiration", featuring glamour model Lucy Pinder. The website has 2 interactive online games featuring Lucy in varying states of undress (I checked them out only for research purposes). Now I could be wrong, in which case I am prepared to apologize to Lucy in person. But it does look like she may have used some of the plastic surgery that Dove is criticising.

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The conflict is now made more obvious by the rather incongruous Unilever corporate branding that appears after you have prematurely perspired with Lucy:

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So, who is right, Jim/P&G or Simon/Unilever?

Well, I think they are both wrong. Here's why.

1. Dove and Axe are in conflict

Let's get real. I admire Simon for saying with a straight face that "Axe/Lynx does not represent a conflict with the Brand Ideal of Dove". But he's wrong. Axe/Lynx's communication has gone from whimsical and amusing a few years ago to soft porn-like today as it tries to attract online traffic from teen boys, who have easy access to much harder core entertainment. And this puts it in direct conflict with Dove.

2. Axe is 1 in a 1000 brands

Jim is wrong in suggesting that this conflict draws into question Unilever's whole corporate branding strategy. Axe/Lynx and Dove are two brands in a portfolio of about 1000. The conflict is great for animated debate. But the critics of Unilever struggle to get much beyond it. (Although you could say that the many of the beauty brands like Sunsilk and Ponds also use glamorous imagery of the type Dove has criticised.)

3. Consumers care little about corporate brands

Where I think both Jim and Simon are wrong is believing that consumers care much about the company behind their product brands. After all, both Unilever and P&G are holding corporation for a wide portfolio of brands, many of which they did not create but rather bought.

Unilever added the corporate logo to UK packs in 2009 and intend to invest more in promoting the corporate brand. But I doubt that this will do anything for sales. The company says "Over time, this will help to improve consumer perception of trust in our brands." But Persil, Flora and Dove don't have trust problems do they?

Company logos like Unilever's that sit in the top corner of a pack go largely go un-seen. And even if people do see the brand, I don't think it will make someone more likely to buy Dove instead of Nivea. Nor will someone buying Persil and seeing its made by Unilever be more likely to buy Lipton tea. And although marketing folk might get hot under the collar about the Axe vs. Dove conflict, I can't see many Dove buyers knowing its made by the same company, nor caring enough to stop buying if they do know.

4. BSR beats CSR

When I worked on the Unilever corporate brand back in 2005, my recommendation was to promote Unilever values through the actions of the product brands. And hats off for them doing this well, with initiatives such as Lipton's sustainable tea and Omo/Persil's Dirt is Good campaign. People do care more now about the actions like this by the brand they buy, but when these are "baked into the brand" (Brand Social Responsibility), not done by a more distant corporate owner (Corporate Social Responsibility).

5. Selling more stuff is more important than corporate consistency

Both Unilever and P&G have incredibly wide portfolios of brands that will get ever bigger as they continue to take over other companies. The most important thing to drive growth is great mixes that create distinctiveness and consumer appeal. Having a great mix on Axe and another on Dove is more imporant than compromising either in the name of corporate consistency.

6. FMCG Corporate brands: for employees, recruiting and the city

I do think that corporate brands have a role to play for FMCG companies like Unilever and P&G, but more in terms of appealing to current and potential employees and to the city, rather than to consumers. I guess that putting the company logo on every pack and bit of communication can help raise corporate brand awareness with these audiences.

However, more important is to communicate why the culture and business model of the business makes it a better company to work for or invest in. A good example of this is Reckitt Benkiser, who come across as an entrepreneurial, fast-moving and high growth business.

In conclusion, in consumer goods people care more about the product brands they buy than the sprawling corporate behemoths behind them. Corporate communication for multi-brand FMCG companies is best spent targeted at future/potential employees and the City.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a Lucy Pinder game to get back to 😉