Why Unilever Is Betting Big On Sustainability

CMO Keith Weed talks about why Unilever’s corporate brand has gone from invisible to the forefront of sustainable business.

Why Unilever Is Betting Big On Sustainability

Less than a decade ago Unilever was a company name unfamiliar to most people. Shoppers would have needed sharp eyesight to read the small print on the packaging of many of the products they used daily, informing them that Unilever produced it.


In those days, a corporate brand name was not a marketing asset. In fact, it was something to be, if not exactly concealed, definitely overshadowed by individual product brands. But over the last few years, the company has begun to promote the corporate brand through its advertising, and has placed its logo on the packaging of its more than 1,000 global brand products.

Some of the Unilever brands | Click to expand

Unilever recently released two new TV spots, one for laundry brand Persil (Omo in some markets) and another for Hellmann’s Mayonnaise. At the end of the ads, which talk about responsible resourcing and sustainability, various other brands in the Unilever portfolio, including Flora, Comfort, Sure, Dove and Knorr are seen flying into the embrace of the Unilever ‘U’ logo. Today, that Unilever ‘U’ is considered an invaluable asset.

The ambition is for the ‘U’ to become, in the words of Keith Weed, Unilever’s chief marketing and communications officer, the “trust mark of sustainable living.” Few would argue that the aim is unachievable. The company sits at the top tables of global efforts to advance sustainable business.

Keith WeedPhoto: Philip Gatward

This week, the United Nations summit for the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda convenes in New York, with Unilever as a key advisor. The company’s CEO Paul Polman received the UN’s Champion of the Earth award for his work as a “tireless advocate” for sustainable business models just last week and the company dominated Globescan’s 2015 Sustainability Leaders Survey for the fifth year running, well ahead of the competition.

All this would indicate that Weed’s aspirations for the brand are materializing. But it has not happened overnight. The journey so far has taken more than a decade and Weed argues, is rooted in the company’s beginnings in the late 1800s.


The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan–the strategic heart

At the center of the company is the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP). Introduced in 2010 by the then recently joined CEO Paul Polman, its stated aim was to double the size of the business whilst halving its environmental footprint by 2020. Later, the phrase “increase positive social impact” was added, which Weed says was always implied in the word “environmental” but needed to be made more explicit. “Halving” has evolved into “reducing” but not at the expense of stringent targets.

The USLP is a strategic response to major global trends, or “mega-forces” Unilever identified. Growth in emerging markets, environmental stress, increasing population, the digital revolution and changing (urbanization) demographics, all figure in the thinking. Extensive detail of how it operates can be found here.

“The USLP is of course a way of doing business but it’s also the reason to believe, the differentiator ultimately of the Unilever brand,” says Weed. “It was always there to build a true story. We didn’t want to have borrowed interests or be sponsoring this and sponsoring that. Fundamentally, when we came to tell the truth about the Unilever brand, it had to have real robust content.”

Weed insists that when talking about the Unilever brand and its relevance today, the story begins in the late 1800s when Lord Leverhulme looked at the squalor of Victorian England and saw the opportunity in making a business that was based on social good. Weed says Leverhulme’s thought was if he could solve real problems he could build a very robust and sustainable business. “To take soap to the mass market was one way of doing that, giving everyone the opportunity to get clean,” says Weed.

Sunlight Soap

Weed also says Leverhulme was one of the first people to come up with a brand. “Up until that point, people used to call their brands after their names, like Hoover, Cadbury and Ford,” says Weed. “He had the idea of Sunlight [soap], the thought of bringing sunlight to the masses–that is in Unilever’s core to this day.”


The influence of Lord Leverhulme and the company’s founding principles cannot be overstated. It is not just a bit of background to staffers. In years of my interviewing numerous Unilever personnel, from CMOs to brand leaders to the current CEO, they have always, every single time, mentioned Lord Leverhulme. His mission is the spiritual core of the Unilever brand.

Two sides of the same coin

A crucial step in bringing meaning to the Unilever brand was Polman’s decision to create Weed‘s role in 2010. Weed is not just CMO of the second largest advertiser in the world–a big enough job for anybody, one would have thought–he also leads sustainability as well as all internal and external communications.

“You can’t have marketing in one corner ‘selling more stuff’ and sustainability in another trying to save the world,” says Weed. “Bring them together because they are two sides of the same coin. Let’s try and do marketing in such a way that we are addressing real social challenges. That way we’ll create a business that is much more vibrant than red bottle versus blue bottle.”

He continues: “The first thing we set out to do was… it’s one thing having a vision but what is the plan going to be, the substance? At this stage we had no intention about talking about that externally. The collective belief was we needed to first get our internal engagement and agendas aligned with our purpose. We wanted to make sure we had something, some real deliverables on the way before we started talking externally.”

The company engaged with very different audiences along the way; employees (of which there are 172,000), key opinion formers, governments, academics, NGOs and the financial community. It was only once this was well underway that Unilever felt it was it was time to talk to the public.


In the wake of the vast One Unilever simplification program (2000-2009) during which hundreds of brands were shed and numerous subsidiary companies scrapped, the Unilever logo had started appearing on all packaging and advertising. It is now the most used logo in the world.

Weed says communicating publicly became more pressing. “The real thing that has happened in the last five years is transparency with the internet,” he says. “People are either genuinely interested in what the brand behind the brand is or want to find out if there are any issues with the brand behind the brand. If you have a vacuum, anything can fill it. So the thought was, we need to communicate what we believe Unilever stands for and is trying to achieve with consumers.”

In November 2013, Project Sunlight was launched, intended to be a platform to share content around what Unilever represents and, as Weed puts it, “could become.”

The launch film, “Why bring a child into this world?” was positioned as a counterpoint to what Weed calls the “doom and gloom” around sustainability. “The idea was that if we all lean in we can make a difference,” he says. “That film was trying to create a more aspirational view.”

Project Sunlight, now renamed Bright Future, is staffed by an in-house brand publishing team, generating content around the Unilever brands, with tips about how to use them more sustainably, as well as content around more general environmental and social activism.


The USLP itself publishes an extensive report each year, which details its progress against numerous time-sensitive targets.

While sustainability has clearly become major factor in business growth in recent years, Weed concedes that Unilever did not know that was going to be the case when it embarked on this strategy. “We didn’t know, but we had some inklings,” he says.

“One thing we noticed going on was that people were moving from thinking in terms of ‘my world’ [personal] to ‘our world’ [local] to ‘the world’ [global],” he says, citing the internet, increasing frequency of climate-related events and the growth of mobile as drivers.

“Increasingly people are realizing they can do something. Our belief is very soon this is going to become a bigger and bigger issue. People will look to governments but they will also look to brands and companies and say: “What are you doing, why didn’t you do something earlier?” We will all very quickly find the ones to point fingers at when it starts really biting.”

Alongside Bright Future, the company has also launched Collectively, a non-profit digital platform targeted at millennials, created in conjunction with BT, Carlsberg, Marks & Spencer and Coca-Cola, which was launched last year. It is intended to look at sustainable options and innovations in fashion, food, design and technology and serve as a counterpoint to what Weed sees as the often-negative mainstream coverage. Additionally, The Foundry was also unveiled in 2014. It seeks to engage with startups to drive innovation in sustainable business. Everything is aimed at the overall vision to “make sustainable living commonplace.”


Marketing for people

The company’s marketing approach has evolved over the years, according to Weed, from broadcasting at people, to marketing with people, and sees the next step as marketing for people. “In a crowded world where breaking through the clutter and getting noticed is hard enough, then engaging people who are busy is even harder, I think if you build brands with purpose you will engage more people,” says Weed. “If you look at the evidence, last year, our ‘sustainable living brands’ [including Dove, Lifebuoy, Ben & Jerry’s, and Comfort] grew twice as fast as the rest of our portfolio.”

Weed says that while the business is about selling products, it’s also about improving the quality of people’s lives. “We have very humble products but they have a real impact on the way we feel about ourselves,” says Weed. “Tomorrow morning get up and don’t wash your hair, don’t brush your teeth, don’t put any deodorant on, drag on dirty clothes, eat your breakfast off a dirty plate, don’t have any tea–now go out and have a good day. If you go into developing markets it’s much more fundamental than that and is about getting clean clothes and reducing labor, for example.”

Since 2010, the Unilever brand has gone from being known mainly to discrete groups, such as financial analysts, to being seen worldwide as a leader in sustainable business. That is not to say it has all been successful, many of the targets on the USLP are missed, difficulties arise, challenges are wrestled with, such as the quest to source all agricultural materials sustainably by 2020. “We’re the largest tea company in the world,” says Weed. “There is currently not enough sustainable tea in the world to source.”

Furthermore, the idea that a “big business” would genuinely attempt to operate in such a different way was met with skepticism from industry experts and the financial community was initially far from open-minded. Nevertheless, the strategy has been successful, since 2010, Unilever’s share price has gone up by 60%. Another indication that it is moving in the right direction is that it is the third most looked up company on LinkedIn, outperformed only by Google and Apple and coming ahead of Facebook and Microsoft.

“In among all those tech giants is a soup and soap company,” says Weed. “We get 2 million people per year applying for jobs. There does seem to be a genuine interest in a company that is trying. We’re certainly not always succeeding. But we’re trying to learn from it.”

About the author

Louise Jack is a London-based journalist, writer and editor with a background in advertising and marketing. She has written for several titles including Marketing Week, Campaign and The Independent.