Unilever's Conny Braams on 'purpose-led creativity', ecommerce and in-housing during Covid

Chief digital and marketing officer discusses the rise of brands with purpose in Campaign Connect interview.

Braams: became Unilever's top marketer in January 2020
Braams: became Unilever's top marketer in January 2020

Unilever has said its six-month adspend “pause” on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter in the US has “served us well”, because it has been able to invest its money elsewhere, including supporting the black community, and it has led to “firm actions” from the social-media giants.

Conny Braams, chief digital and marketing officer of Unilever, told Campaign’s virtual conference, Campaign Connect: “Over the last six months, I’ve been impressed with the appetite that the platforms have shown – in line with the commitments that GARM [the Global Alliance for Responsible Media] has made and that we have started with our [Unilever] Responsibility Framework. Am I completely happy? Not yet.”

Asked where she hopes to see further progress, Braams said she would like the social-media platforms to allow “third-party audits” – “especially of harmful content” – so that the tech companies and Unilever could “learn” together.

Braams’ comments are significant because Unilever, the owner of consumer goods brands such as Ben & Jerry’s, Comfort, Dove and Hellmann’s, is one of the world’s biggest and most influential advertisers, with an annual brand and marketing investment of €7.27bn (£6.33bn) and a focus on sustainability and purpose.

In her interview, she discussed how consumers have “become more considerate and conscious” and the importance of “purpose-led creativity”, rather than “creativity for creativity’s sake”. Actions must match purpose and she is “allergic” to woke-washing”, she stressed.

Braams also said the future of Unilever’s on-site agency model, U-Studio, was “very healthy” and it had increased digital content production by 40% during Covid.

Consumers want value and values

Braams has worked at Unilever since 1990 and became chief digital and marketing officer at the start of January 2020, replacing Keith Weed, who was chief marketing and communications officer.

The dual emphasis on digital and marketing in her job title, was significant and has “become even important” because of the pandemic, she said.

“The whole idea of the job is to lead the end-to-end digital transformation of the company – not just marketing, as that’s normally what people tend to think, but, of course, it has quite an overlap with marketing. Both roles inherently exist to serve the customer.”

The twin functions of digital and marketing are together to “make sure that we make sustainable choices simple and preferred for people”, she said.

Asked about the most significant trends to emerge in 2020, Braams identified ecommerce and the continued rise of purpose.

“Ecommerce has been a massive shift, not only in penetration but also in loyalty. We have seen that not only in [online] pure players really accelerating but also omni-channel players [such as supermarket chains] have really embarked on a journey of ecommerce.

“That for marketers is a massive change because we needed to make sure our performance marketing was in order, that we were there when consumers were browsing, searching, looking for alternatives, making their purchases.

“We have also seen the collapse of the [sales] funnel. It isn’t any more a very sequential ordering of things. The journey is smaller and can collapse quicker and you can go to buying occasions at another [faster] pace than we have seen in the past.”

Alongside the growing shift to digital behaviour, “we’ve witnessed the consumer has become more considerate and conscious”, which has been “really important” during the year of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter, she said.

“Lots of people, due to the pandemic, are now realising we have one planet and my actions do matter. So, they are really increasingly aware of everything that they are doing that has an impact on the planet and on society.”

Consumers are gravitating towards “brands with purpose” that “step up authentically on not only what they say they stand for but also the actions that they take”, she said, adding that will continue as the global economy suffers from the fallout of the virus.

“People will be living and looking in recession times for brands for their value but also for their values. It’s this dual nature of value that has become more prominent.”

That applies across Unilever’s stable – from “brands that were born with purpose”, such as Ben & Jerry’s, Seventh Generation and Vegetarian Butcher, to those “brands that only later embarked on this journey of purpose”, she said.

Social-media pause has 'served us well'

Unilever was one of the most prominent advertisers to pause its adspend on a select number of social platforms in the US in July, in response to what Braams called the “polarised” political environment.

That included a surge in racist content in the wake of BLM movement and the US presidential election race.

“We didn’t feel that our brands could be safely advertising in this environment,” Braams said, explaining why the company decided to halt adspend for six months.

The political temperature has “come down slightly” since the election “but we are not there yet” and she remains “slightly worried about the environment in the US”.

Unilever will make an announcement by the end of the month about when it will return to advertising on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter in 2021, according to Braams.

However, Unilever has no “intention” to “forever stay off these platforms”, she said.

In the meantime, investing some of its money elsewhere “has served us well” in the past six months.

“We have been able to step up our efforts and spend more dollars and [carry out] actions to drive meaningful change around how we support the black community”, she said, citing Unilever’s support for The CROWN Act – a piece of US legislation that combats race-based hair discrimination – as an example.

Unilever has been carrying out what amounts to a giant A/B marketing test because it has continued to advertise on social-media platforms outside the US but Braams did not reveal what Unilever might have learned.

“A good evaluation still needs to be made” and “it’s always difficult to compare countries because the users of the platforms are quite different and the environment in which you advertise is quite different”, she said.

Generally, Unilever has found that “these platforms are really important for our precision marketing and to really reach audiences at the right moment in time with the right message”.

However, the US experiment has shown that “there are alternatives” and “we have been able to reach these audiences in different ways”, she said. “Our US business has been flourishing.”

Ambitious for 'purpose-led creativity' and 'allergic' to woke-washing

Braams, who began her career at Unilever in 1990 as a marketing trainee and has worked in management roles across Europe, Asia and Africa, believes strongly in the importance of creativity to drive growth for sustainable brands.

“Yes, efficiency and effectiveness is important but I truly believe that 50% of that or more is driven by creativity,” she said. “But I wouldn’t want creativity for creativity’s sake.

“So, my ambition would really be that we unleash purpose-led creativity because I have seen how purpose can really inspire great creativity – whether it is great stories, great emotions or great ideas.

“If you do that really well, it doesn’t only lead to purpose-led growth for our brands but also the actions are then in line with the purpose and we can really have a positive impact on people and the planet.”

The ultimate ambition is that Unilever’s brands allow “sustainable choices for everyone” – so they can be “not a privilege for the happy few but a right for everyone in society”, she said.

Asked how she measures success when it comes to purpose-led creativity, she said: “A measure of success in the end is always down to the consumer. Does the consumer really see and does it cut through? Do people talk about it? Is it something that is unmissable for consumers?

“And do we see it back in the scores that consumers give us, mainly on seeing brands not only wanting to make a profit or sell more but really contributing to a better society? That, for me, is still the most important thing.”

Winning an ad industry award at Cannes Lions might be “an indication” of success. But “if we are all happy with the purpose that we have sent out” and “there’s no action being taken or consumers don’t measure our success or don’t see our success, then I would say it’s creativity for creativity’s sake. Or it is purpose that might lead to woke-washing and that is what I am quite allergic to.”

Braams went on: “Purpose needs to be really authentic. It needs to be what we call in Unilever ‘the brand say’ and ‘the brand do’ and only if consumers see that happening is it something that I think deserves a gold medal [at an awards show].”

Asked for an example of work that fulfils her ambitions, she pointed to Dads, a documentary about fathers for Dove Men+Care, which was made by Unilever Entertainment. It features actor Will Smith and was sold to Apple TV+.

“It is creative and it is a new way of engaging consumers”, and it is “really central” to the Dove Men+Care brand, Braams said.

Unilever has been looking to create more “seek-out” content, because “we see the world of marketing moving on”.

However, there is a balance to be struck because consumers also make “routine purchases” when they won’t spend a lot of time choosing a detergent and there’s "quite some loyalty involved in that”, she pointed out.

“What is really critical is that consumers are not the same in every moment in time and not in regards to different purchases that they do. So you need to be acutely aware that people will decide themselves when they interact with your brand and with the content that you bring.

“The moment that you make it more creative, more interesting, more entertaining, the chances of being really relevant with your offer are 1,000 times higher.”

Unilever will keep making more content – based on insights from consumers and marrying that with the brand’s purpose – although Braams says the company is still exploring this relatively new area.

“Let’s see how far we take it. Not everything has a roadmap or a North Star that you can just follow in a linear way. We are also learning along the way.”

Future of in-house agency U-Studio is 'very healthy'

Unilever is much further down the road with in-housing of some marketing services as it set up U-Studio, an on-site agency model, in 2016 – a watershed move that allowed the company to speed up production of fast-turnaround digital content and slash agency fees.

There are now 21 U-Studios around the world – with support from Oliver, an in-housing agency specialist, which is majority-owned by You & Mr Jones – and Braams sees scope for further expansion.

Production has gone up 40% during Covid – “very much in line with digital really exploding, because U-Studio’s core scope is still digital advertising and content”, she said.

The idea before Covid was that U-Studio staff sat “next to our marketing teams” on-site in Unilever’s offices but they have adapted to remote working and “it has worked digitally”, Braams said. “Co-located can indeed be in spirit and not so much physically.”

She added: “We see the future of U-Studio as very healthy, even if we are working from home for a bit longer or are not in the office as often as we used to be before Covid.”

However, Braams stressed that U-Studio is just “part of our ecosystem” and Unilever continues to have deep relationships with three agency holding companies – WPP, Omnicom and Interpublic – and a select number of independent agencies.

It is this combination “that, with all of us together, creates the kind of work that we all feel very proud of”.

When she looks back on 2020, what is the most positive that Braams has learned? “It is even more critical that sustainable choices can’t become a privilege.”

Premium subscribers to Campaign Connect can access all of the interviews on-demand for 12 weeks at: campaign-connect.com

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