Opinion

Unilever CMO Keith Weed on life-changing tech and why brands must be citizens

From the heat and bright lights of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas to the chill and snowy glare in Davos, it has been a busy start to the year, writes Keith Weed.

In both places, technology and its impact were centre stage.

That’s always the case at CES, and this year was no exception in showing off the latest array of tech designed to simplify and connect our lives more than ever before. It’s certainly not always the case in Davos, but this year the theme of the high-altitude, high-stakes gathering was ‘Mastering the fourth industrial revolution’. The discussion about issues such as artificial intelligence, the internet of things and virtual reality went one step further than CES to address how we can use new technology to make our ever-more connected world a better place.

As ambitious as this may sound, it is rooted in real challenges for our planet and people. In December I was in Paris, where the world’s business and political leaders made a significant step forward in agreeing how we can end extreme poverty, fight inequality and address the impact of climate change. The resulting Paris Agreement is widely seen as a pivotal world moment in facing these global challenges.

And the signs are positive. Davos represented the perfect opportunity after Paris to continue this momentum, and it has been encouraging to see businesses stepping up with their targets to reduce carbon emissions and bringing solutions to the table.

Industry experts believe that there will be more than 2bn smartphones and 25bn connected devices in operation this year

Now that the world agrees, we need to take action. However, what does this mean for brands and marketers? Can we really make a difference through technology?

In short, yes we can. We face a fusion of technology, from the physical – such as the prevalence of smart devices – and digital ability, through to AI and virtual reality. And no matter which aspect you look at, humans are at the centre. Brands engaging with people – consumers, citizens, change-agents of the globe – have the power to make a real impact. That is why my role offers such an exciting opportunity, as Unilever engages with more than 2bn consumers each day through its brands.

The starting point is mobile

Industry experts believe that there will be more than 2bn smartphones and 25bn connected devices in operation this year. Mobile is the obvious starting point for any brand trying to improve direct connections with consumers. For Unilever, this is at the heart of what we do every day, but it’s a journey that is constantly evolving.

It is one of the reasons why the annual Unilever Sustainable Living Young Entrepreneurs Awards is so interesting. (We will soon announce the global finalists for the 2015 Awards.) Last year’s winner, Daniel Yu, developed a simple piece of software that helps medical clinics in the developing world digitise and manage inventory records, helping people get the medicine they need.

Another notable project from the Awards that springs to mind is Next Drop, which uses mobile technology to let its subscribers in Indian cities know when water will next flow in the pipes in their homes. This may sound simple, but it has been life-changing for its users, who no longer have to wait at home all day so that they don’t miss the chance to get the water they need. These examples might not sound as sexy as a drone that can navigate obstacles or a fridge that can order your milk for you, but they are practical and scalable examples of how technology can make a difference to lives.

We need to start thinking about brands as citizens too, with a responsibility to promote, share, create exposure and help to make change. At Davos, I was fortunate to take part in debates with leaders from business, civil society and politics, discussing the societal case for making the world a better place. I would also argue that it’s more than that. Businesses and brands that fail to change how they operate, and fail to recognise the opportunity through technology to speed up positive impacts, are not seeing the bigger picture. This is not a moral issue, it’s an economic one, so we must find a way to build a more sustainable world to ensure that companies like ours will continue to serve people and improve lives for another 100 years.

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