NEW MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON UNILEVER - Unilever's online strategy gets a revamp to match user needs. Unilever is moving its digital investment into integrating brands

Unilever could never be accused of shying away from the

internet.



The company, which last week announced a review of its digital planning

strategy, has been something of a pioneer in terms of investing in

digital channels as marketing and customer relationship management

tools.



The FMCG giant has created websites and other online promotional

products for brands such as Domestos, Enjoy!, Persil and Lynx. To date,

most of Unilever's brands have been represented online separately, in

the form of unique websites that are largely unrelated to each other. It

also invested in the teenage girl's portal Wowgo that launched last

year. However, the site folded after Unilever pulled its funding.



Unilever has been equally active in the interactive TV arena, and was

one of the earliest investors. It was behind the first interactive TV

advertising campaign in the UK in 1999 for its Chicken Tonight brand,

which was created by Grey Interactive. It has developed a number of

other interactive TV initiatives for its Persil products, mainly through

Modem Media, as well as a more generic Creative Kitchen interactive TV

site to house a number of its culinary brands.



However, two weeks ago it emerged that Unilever plans to redevelop its

UK Persil website. Now it seems that it's all change for the company's

digital strategy. Unilever is seeking a pure online planning and buying

media agency to handle its online media strategy as well as planning and

buying, supporting Initiative Media, its media incumbent.



The digital strategic pitch is understood to include Quantum New Media,

Zentropy Partners, which is one of the company's incumbent agencies, and

Outrider. Zentropy Partners, which is part of McCann-Erickson, has

already developed the online branding for Unilever's Birds Eye range and

Unilever cosmetics.



Although the company's investment in digital has been considerable,

Unilever is now re-evaluating how effective its strategy has been to

date. Joshua Pert, the interactive marketing manager at Unilever, says:

"The strategy was focused around individual brands, and that has now

given way to a more integrated approach. We are recognising a need to

cater more for customer needs."



One industry expert is unconvinced about the group's online efficiency:

"Unilever's strategy to date has not been focused.



Although it is aware of the capabilities of online and has acknowledged

that its future advertising must include this medium, it has failed to

understand the complexities of the medium, and how to convert them to

traditional marketing and advertising principals. Accountability and

data are critically important factors for it."



Other watchers are not as scathing. Alastair Duncan, the managing

director of Zentropy Partners, says: "Anyone who is responsible for a

brand will use all the right media at the right time to deliver the

right message. Unilever has established solid processes to do this

competitively, which has come from the top."



So does Unilever think it could have done better in the past? "We've

learned that brand sites don't work," Pert says. "Sites produced around

FMCG brands have to address a customer need - they can't broadcast

messages like TV advertising can. You need to create a customer bond by

giving them something that they need."



It seems that Pert is thinking along the right lines. The days of

branded, promotional websites are well and truly over and any company

ploughing money into such activities needs to take a long, hard look at

its motives.



Few web users would go to a site simply to read about how wonderful a

product is. And what would inspire one to type in the URL in the first

place? Who has ever been curious about, for example, a soap brand?



The details of the new strategic approach are still being ironed out

within Unilever, and a decision on the pitch is not expected for another

couple of weeks. However, according to Pert, Unilever plans to create a

series of online partnerships that align its brands with content or

editorial that is useful to consumers.



On a large scale, Unilever's chairman, Niall Fitzgerald, has announced

e-commerce alliances with iVillage and has launched the home-cleaning

service myhome.



Other examples include Unilever's anti-cholesterol brand Flora

pro.activ, which sponsors the cholesterol centre on the health website

Surgerydoor.com.



Visitors to the site are there to find information - and at the same

time they may be encouraged to gain an awareness of certain products on

the market that can help their health needs. "When new sites launch,

they will be tapping into those areas of customer needs that are

sustainable," Pert adds.



Can we expect to see the same approach from Unilever's digital TV

strategy?



Pert is cautious on this. He says: "The campaigns will change as the

technology adapts. Although interactive TV offers something new, it

isn't enhanced TV yet. At the moment, we get a good response, but that

could just be because of the novelty value of the new technology."



The adjustments to Unilever's online approach signal an acknowledgement

that attracting consumers to brands online is a much more sophisticated

process than was previously thought.



Unlike television viewers, web surfers are proactive, not passive.



The Holy Grail for advertisers is anticipating online behaviour and then

being attractive to the viewer. Advertisers are now realising that

activity is often less about hard sell and more about offering the right

information and products. By focusing on customer needs rather than

uniquely branded websites, Unilever is definitely on the right track.



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