Building a better working world: Unilever style

As regular readers will know by now, I have a massive man-crush on Unilever CEO, Paul Polman (and not just because he was kind enough to say something nice about my book!).

Here’s a leader who really gets new-world sustainability – a world in which Corporate Responsibility/Corporate Sustainability (whatever you choose to call it) is indistinguishable from business strategy, based on the knowledge that best prescription for long-term success these days is making a positive social impact on the world.

Among many memorable quotes from a speech of his I attended a few months ago, as part of Hult Business School’s Visionary Speaker series, was his assertion that “I don’t believe that any brand should be there, if it doesn’t serve a purpose that actually makes this a better world.”

For a window into how this translates into action – how Unilever is connecting every one of its brands to a higher social purpose – there’s no better example than this video for Lifebuoy soap (if you haven’t come across this before, I strongly advise you to have hankies at the ready – it’s a tearjerker!):

And here’s a sample of people’s reactions to it — reactions that, I must say, are of precisely the kind that I have every time I watch Gondappa’s story:

What can we learn from this (aside from it being a masterclass in emotive storytelling)?

Three things, I think…

Firstly, terminology. When Unilever uses the word ‘sustainable’, they’re not using it as a synonym for ‘green’ – exclusively about environmental stewardship (although ‘Reducing environmental impact’ is a key area of focus for its Sustainable Living Plan). It’s much bigger than that. It’s about increasing their social impact and, in so doing, creating consumer preference for their brand(s) and increasing the long-term viability and prosperity of their business.

Second, positioning. Note how the Lifebouy brand is explicitly connected to the higher purpose of preventing disease and unnecessary deaths through the simple act of washing hands with soap. Note how it fits neatly under ‘Improving health and wellbeing’ (another – and the first – of their three topline areas of focus). Note, too, how its campaigns to encourage healthy hand-washing habits across schools and villages, in urban and rural communities across Asia, Africa and Latin America, are a logical extension of the Lifebuoy product and its purpose.

Third, the art of creating value through sustainability. Two numbers tell you everything you need to know about how making a relevant and positive social impact on the world creates brand value. As a result of Hindustan Unilever’s campaign in Thesgora, India, the incident rate of diarrhoea has fallen by 86%. And what effect has that, and other similar campaigns, had on the Lifebuoy brand? Underlying sales growth is 18% per annum over the last three years.

‘Nuff said!

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