Friday, July 23, 2010

One Unilever - two Marketing standards

An excellent article in The   called "Stand Up to Unilever's hypocrisy over skin lightening" followed by a long thread of comments, largely disagreeing with the author, prompted me to think about the essence of CSR and the responsibilities of companies to align their messages with all their brands. Unilever has been targeted for some time with charges of hyprocisy - one the one hand, promoting self-esteem and "real beauty" for women with Dove, whist on the other hand, denigrating women with sexist and humiliating ads for Axe deodorant, and now with skin whitening offers via Vaseline brand to encourage people to represent themselves on Facebook with lighter skin, which doesn't quite align with the concept of "real" beauty. Is this hypocritical or is it just horses for courses in the aggressive competitive beauty industry?

Unilever (disclosure: I worked for Unilever in the role of VP for Human Resources in Israel for 8 years) is highly regarded as a leader in CSR. Just this month  Unilever was recognised by Business in the Community as the Company of the Year. Unilever has been a consistent CSR reporter for years and years - you can view their latest 2009 Sustainable Development Report here. Unilever sources tea from Rainforest Alliance Certified Farms, and palm oil with GreenPalm Certificates, and 44% of Unilever's food portfolio is in line with internationally accepted guidelines for saturated and trans fat, sugar and salt. A DowJones Sustainability Index Industry Sector leader for the 11th year running and  a UN Global Compact signatory, Unilever consistently reduces its environmental impacts whilst helping people to look good, feel good and get more out of life. 

Unilever say: " We are committed to responsible marketing ." Examples quoted are the successful campaigns related to Dove and Omo and the awards that Unilever has received for good marketing and advertizing campaigns. And good they are. But doing good is not a license to do bad elsewhere. Unilever, originally the merger of two Companies, the Dutch Unie and the British Lever, has worked hard over the past 5 years or so to create One Unilever - the dismantling of the dual CEO structure which characterised this corporation for decades. There appears to be one part of the Company which has not made this transition quite so smoothly - the marketing division. It really is not acceptable to enhance self-esteem with one campaign and destroy it with others. Needless to say, these issues are not addressed in Unilever's voluntary CSR reporting which is rather good-news oriented.

So come on, Unilever, get your One Unilever act together and stop allowing unprincipled and irresponsible marketing campaigns to tarnish your otherwise impressive CSR and sustainability record. Get the concepts embedded. Get the Marketing people on board. Rewite the marketing manual. Do more Doves.

(NB For good order's sake, I will add that my experience of Unilever as an employer was always positive - a Company with a high work ethic and care and concern for people and society.)

elaine cohen is co-founder and co-CEO of Beyond Business, a leading social and environmental consulting and reporting firm. Visit our website at

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