Unilever's commitments are advertising hygiene. Transformation comes next
A view from Grant Owens

Unilever's commitments are advertising hygiene. Transformation comes next

Lessons learned in the marketing world have been weaponised in the political arena, writes Grant Owens, chief strategy officer at Critical Mass.

Not unlike the promises made by Procter & Gamble’s Marc Pritchard last year, Unilever’s Keith Weed recently revealed the company’s plans to ensure its advertising content and partners make a positive impact on society.

The effort is important and immensely robust coming from someone that controls Unilever’s level of spending power. The commitment by such a major marketer will quickly stymie the revenue of platforms that don’t live up to its standards.

What Unilever, Procter & Gamble and others have started to put in place is the blocking and tackling of marketing ethics - the logistics - cutting ties with overtly divisive advertising models. It’s admirable and certainly a smart fiscal move that’s helped them to cut budgets from unflattering and underperforming advertising spaces.

And while I stand behind Weed’s three commitments, they just scratch the surface of marketers’ responsibilities in helping to improve behaviour within our communities. The role marketing plays in our global collective conscience goes much deeper. It is, fundamentally, a study and ongoing experiment of human psychology and behavioral economics that has been shaped by marketers for decades. And sometimes with unintended consequences.

It’s just the beginning of a self-reflective phase the industry must undertake. What will emerge are new strategic and enduring principles among major marketers.

Ditching the ‘Us vs Them’ mentality

A big topic for reflection is tenor and dialogue - how brands speak, not just where they speak. Even if a brand doesn’t intend to take a particular political stance, marketers have to determine if the dialogue is divisive or unifying.

While the industry loves to portray tribalism (think "I’m a Mac, I’m a PC"), and most consumers can enjoy the debate at an entertaining and superficial level, the lessons learned in the marketing world have been weaponised in the political arena to a very damaging degree.

We’ve become a society that forces people to make a choices on every topic, every new event, every two-sided idea. We’ve driven a wedge between mostly like-minded people and forced them to define their life’s intentions on the smallest of issues.

For a number of years I taught integrated marketing at NYU. Each semester, I told the class that it’s better to be a polarising brand than it is to engender popular product indifference - a brand everyone knows well, but couldn’t care less about.

In theory, full brand polarisation would mean tremendous market success. For example, if you sold a vehicle that half the world hated, and therefore would never even consider it, but the other half of the world loved it so much that it’s the only car they would purchase, you’d have the best selling vehicle in the history of the industry. This is, in a nutshell, the strategy used by nearly all modern political campaigns.

Even if you don’t take the theory to that extreme conclusion, my years of experience taught me that making provocative statements is a highly effective strategy for brands, just as it is for politicians, news tickers and clickbait headlines.

And while I’ve never worked on a major political campaign, my brand marketing missives make me feel partly responsible for the tricks used in the 2016 US election. I unwittingly helped create the current divisive public dialogue - and I have a responsibility to fix it.

Ripping off the label

Our industry is well-known for its ability to put labels on things, both literally and metaphorically. Yet being labelled is a dangerous ceremony that people, places and things can struggle to shed, even if the context and substance change. The balance lies in establishing a durable brand label, yet encouraging consumers to approach every situation with an open mind.

Unilever’s efforts around the Unstereotype Alliance - a global consortium trying to remove stereotypical portrayals of gender in advertising and brand content - is a huge step in the right direction. The most respected brands in the next era will be those that use their label to encourage a dialogue, present the facts, and act magnanimously toward the competition. It’s the end of stereotypes as we know them.

Demanding radical transparency

What’s a lie? What’s a white lie? What’s a false claim? What’s an unsubstantiated claim? Marketers have played in the margins of these questions for the entirety of the discipline.

We’ve arguably mastered the game. Not until recently did the consumer take control. In this data-at-your-fingertips era, consumers are deeply informed, and any old models of of marketing shell games and confusion are over.

The best companies will fundamentally evolve their businesses with access to information at the centre. The onus is on marketers to structure information in ways that benefit the consumer while keeping the business viable. Brands that profit from disinformation won’t survive.

A race to the bottom

As we mature, we learn a hard lesson: you can’t please everyone. And the same is true for brands. That life lesson is irrefutable, but you can do right by everyone. That’s what this era of marketing transformation will entail?. Brands must stand for something. But Weed’s commitments are just a start.

Brands and marketers are opinion and behaviour leaders, whether they set out to be or not. So go do right by others and genuinely please the customers you can. Everyone will respect you, even if they don’t passionately love you.

Positive discourse and social responsibility will be the next big trend for brands. And with the latest moves from giants like Unilever, other brands are sure to follow. Only the most unimaginative will continue in their divisive race to the bottom.