Why Unilever ditched Corporate Social Responsibility

Keith Weed, Unilever’s CMO, explained why he changed the company’s approach to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), including disbanding the CSR department, in this interesting article on Linked In. Below I share some of the key points from Keith’s article, along with  our take on some of the issues.

1. ‘Mainstreaming sustainability’.

Initial reaction to Keith’s closure of the CSR department was that this was a sign of how low a priority Keith viewed sustainability to be. “The motivation was almost exactly the opposite of what people assumed,” he explains. “It was about embedding sustainability in every corner of the business, not just where the CSR folk hung out. It’s every brand, every market. No exceptions.” Keith calls this “mainstreaming sustainability”. He goes on to describe Unilever’s approach to the whole, extended value chain, “from the water used to grow our produce, to the greenhouse gasses used when people wash their clothes with our detergents.”

This is very much in tune with the recommendation we’ve been making for several years to move beyond CORPORATE social responsibility to “BRAND social responsibility”, including this post on Unilever from way back in 2008. With BSR, a social mission is no longer confined to corporate, charitable actions that happen separate from a company’s product brands. Rather, the social mission is “baked in” to the brand. For example, when you buy a tub of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Brownie ice cream, the brownies inside come from a charity in the Bronx that gets homeless people off the street, as I posted on here back in 2006. This social mission works alongside the product mission (great ice cream) and the economic mission (to make money). In this way the brand delivers its essence of “Joy for the Belly and Soul”.

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2. Build on an authentic brand truth

Consumers today are demanding and have well tuned bulls**t detectors. “They can tell the difference between a brand with a purpose and a brand with a PR agenda,” as Keith puts it. A brand needs to make a genuine, positive, tangible impact if it is going to claim a social mission; and the best brands in this space tend to deliver positive change before they make such a claim. Lifebuoy soap is a good example of this, as I posted on here. The brand has been “an affordable solution to devastating hygiene conditions in impoverished communities” for many years, and runs many programs in India and south-east Asia to encourage frequent and thorough hand washing.

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The interesting point here is that this approach not only saves lives, it also helps “SMS” (sell more stuff). And selling more soap in turn helps save more lives. Check out the ad below which is pushing the use of Lifebuoy 5 times a day for extra protection!

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3. Boost distinctiveness

A final important point from Keith is the need for “Marketers (to) no longer see sustainability as an afterthought or a ‘drag’ on their brand, but as a source of differentiation and growth.” And this means “sustainable products that have great performance and do not cost any more than others.” This is in contrast to the sustainable products of the past which not only cost more than leading brands, they worked less well.

An example of boosting relevance and distinctiveness is this way is Unilever’s launch of compact deodorants, that I posted on here. The new compact packs use less gas and packaging and create less waste, delivering the same number of sprays in a smaller format. The cool thing about the new new packs is that by being smaller they are also more convenient: less space in your shopping bag, in your bathroom cabinet and in your travel washbag.

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In conclusion, the opportunity with social and environmental sustainability it not to bolt it on as a corporate action but rather to bake it into your brand. In this way you have a chance to emulate the ambitious vision of Unilever, which is to grow the business AND reduce environmental footprint AND increase positive social impact.

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