Unilever could never be accused of shying away from the
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
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
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
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
Other examples include Unilever's anti-cholesterol brand Flora
pro.activ, which sponsors the cholesterol centre on the health website
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
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.