Interview with Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever: Global consumer marketing in the era of Covid and social responsibility

Heightened social and environmental concerns, rapidly advancing digitisation and marketing mistakes were among the many topics addressed by Alan Jope, the CEO of Unilever, during his interview conducted by the Master as part of his Marketing – leading business from the front series.

As the boss of one of the world’s largest and most geographically diverse consumer goods businesses which has presence in 190 countries, Jope has unique insights into marketing. Besides being at the helm of a business that employs 150,000 people and has direct relationships with up to four million producers and farmers, Jope is also on the international business council of the World Economic Forum and chair of Generation Unlimited and vice chair of the Unstereotype Alliance, which are both organisations with a strong social agenda.

He began his career with Unilever in 1985, later working in leadership roles in North America and Asia, including doubling the size of the business in China, before becoming head of the beauty and personal care division.

Sustainability is good for everyone

Throughout the course of the conversation, it was clear how important sustainability and social responsibility are to Jope and to Unilever. “The thing I feel most strongly about is the false paradox about the existence of a trade-off between sustainability and financial performance,” he said. “The minute businesses feel they have to compromise to do the right thing, the model of sustainability goes out of the window.

“We have found that when we put brands on a sustainability agenda they grow faster because they are more aligned to the consumers of today and tomorrow. We have also saved about €1bn of costs through responsible sourcing.”

He said the commitment to sustainability was why Unilever uses advanced AI technology to track the source of vital ingredients, such as palm oil. Sustainability was also a strategic advantage, reducing exposure to major adverse events through diversity of sourcing and helping attract talented young people to a business not solely driven by profit maximisation. He said human diversity is also important to Unilever, with women now occupying 51 per cent of its 14,000 managerial roles.

Sustaining success through effective marketing is also a vital priority, with two-thirds of Unilever’s executive teamhaving marketing backgrounds. “We are a company of brands, and people in aggregate need to be sufficiently skilled in marketing,” he said.

Campaigns to be proud of

Campaigns by Unilever brands that have given him most pride include the Domestos-driven push to increase sanitation, installing and providing access to 28 million clean and safe toilets. Dove has generated 70 million conversations with girls about improving self-esteem. Hellmann’s is addressing food waste and Lifebuoy is saving lives through educational campaigns on the importance of handwashing. Unilever has also invested €100 million in a fund for female black and minority ethnic entrepreneurs in the US, who find itdifficult to raise money. “It shows what a fantastic profession marketing can be because we have the opportunity to change our social norms with our brands. Way beyond the boardroom and P&L, marketing can be hugely influential on society,” he said.

Successes and mistakes

From a marketing perspective, success in China when he was there had been built through focus on a core portfolio of brands and on significant investment in local talent. Unilever China now has revenues of €3.5bn and its staff is two-thirds Chinese nationals. But he admitted that Unilever had made some notable marketing mistakes, most recently with two beauty and haircare brands that had caused offence in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. The company had immediately stepped in to correct them and was ready to hold up its hand.

Jope believes the global shift to e-commerce stimulated by Covid is here to stay, as part of the growing digitisation “of everything” including where large corporations like Unilever spend on media. Fundamental principles about understanding consumers and what they want still nonetheless apply, he stressed. Successful marketers still need to be curious about the world around them.

Other long-term effects of the pandemic would be felt in hybrid work patterns and acceleration of digital technology. Unilever was already reaping substantial efficiencies from the implementation of cutting-edge technology such as digital twins and was exploring the use of AI and ML for the creation of new products. He did not, however, believe working from home would continue on its current scale. Evidence from Microsoft had shown that while business and personal networks had held up during the pandemic, new networks for collaboration were not emerging.

“Marketing is changing so fast,” he said. “It bears no resemblance to 30 years ago when I started. The pace of technology is such that if you snooze a bit you will fall behind. But the fundamentals still apply – you must have customer insight.”