Atifa Silk
Oct 3, 2013

Interview: How Unilever keeps up with change

THE ATIFA SILK INTERVIEW: Unilever chiefs Keith Weed and Luis Di Como discuss the changing role of marketing and their biggest fears in the mobile age.

Weed (left) and Di Como
Weed (left) and Di Como

Unilever’s Keith Weed and Luis Di Como, as chief marketing and communications officer and SVP of global media, believe mobile is the biggest enabler of social platforms. With more than half of all activity on Facebook and Twitter now taking place on a mobile device, the technology is affecting the way consumers engage with the world. It is also changing the way Unilever engages with them, and the way it does marketing. It is no longer about 360-degree communication. Unilever, they say, is shifting to a 365-days-a-year, always-on approach. Crucially, it is about always-on entertainment for the consumer.

Atifa Silk: How is marketing’s role changing? 

Keith Weed: The role of marketing is to have a point of view on the future and being able to show to the company where our future growth is going to come from. The world is changing fast and we are faced with a digital revolution. The world is also moving towards the fast-growth markets — whether in population terms or economic terms. Within that there is the whole need around sustainability. If we are going to achieve our goal of doubling our business we have to do it in a way that is socially and environmentally sustainable. You will not be surprised to hear about the geographical shift in marketing; we now have more people sitting in our Singapore and Mumbai head offices than in our global head office. That’s about us recognising where we see the future. At Unilever we also see a joining-up of communications. Although I am chief marketing officer, I also run communications — internal and external — through to our CSR foundation. I’ve seen it now in quite a few of the big companies, where communications is being relooked at. I believe a sign of the times is the joining up of the conversation with external and internal communications.

Luis Di Como: In my role, I am on top of technology. IT is a key part of marketing today and how we work with local markets. It plays a key role in how we develop our communications plan.

Atifa Silk: What is your biggest fear? 

Keith Weed: I would love the solution to my biggest fear, which is fragmentation, the integration of data and accessing multiple agencies to create a campaign. The integration of our brand communication and brand is one of our biggest challenges. What I’d love to see, and I’m sure we will, is some sort of coming together again on the agency side so there is an overall ownership/leadership of our brand idea and brand communication. By the way, I don’t know what the solution is. There are occasions when an agency will do everything for us. But that seems to be the occasion when you have a problem because actually you end up being compromised. We also take the holding-company approach. Yet these are all workaround solutions; they are not design solutions.

Atifa Silk: What value do you put on creativity? 

Keith Weed: Socialisation of marketing is probably the biggest thing that has changed creativity at Unilever. We need to get our minds around how we hold our brands together and how we create integration in a market and media that’s fragmenting. That’s the biggest challenge — how do you create brands that are consistent and relevant in a market where you can do absolutely anything? 


Keith Weed

  • 2010 Chief marketing and communications officer, Unilever
  • 1995 Senior VP, Unilever
  • 1992 Marketing director, Unilever (formerly ElidaFaberge France)
  • 1987 Marketing director, skin care, Unilever (formerly Cheseborough Ponds)
  • 1983 Joined Unilever (formerly known as Elida Gibbs UK)
  • 1979 Engineering, Michelin

Luis Di Como

  • 2011 Senior VP, global media, Unilever
  • 1991 VP Media America, Unilever de Argentina (20 years)
  • 1991 Global communications planning director (16+ years)

We’re a great believer in brands. At the end of the day it’s what drives us. In an increasingly cluttered world, creativity is gaining importance. There are so many messages coming at everyone, every moment of the day. Unless you can break through that clutter and be noticed, you just become part of the wallpaper. When advertisers and brand owners were controlling the message — sending out a 30-second or 15-second ad — you could argue that creativity was something that we could control, bottle and serve up. Today, we are living in a very different world that’s more democratic in how people engage with your brands, and so the role of creativity is even more important. What are you going to do to deserve to be noticed or engaged with? 

Atifa Silk: Are you always ahead of your consumer? 

Keith Weed: Every day, two billion people use our products in 180 countries. We have to remember what we are trying to achieve with our marketing: we are trying to engage our consumers and build our brand. Of course consumers are engaging with our brands in different ways, and we want to be where our consumers are — fish where the fish are. Our consumers know us and love us on TV. And as they spend more time on social, search or mobile, we want to be there — and be there a little ahead of them. We want to get to the future first, and so having a point of view about where things are going is very important for that. I believe the leadership role in any company is to have a point of view about the future and making sure you have the capability and the interface as well. 

That said, while we need to be ahead of the consumer, it can’t be too far ahead. There are a lot of interesting things you can do and of course you do need to experiment, but you should look where consumers are engaging with brands and consuming media. In markets like the US, where people spend more of their time in the area of digital, we have a huge investment in that media. So it’s not surprising to see 30 per cent of budgets going to digital. In places like India you would not want to spend a fortune on internet where there is low penetration, so it tends to be in the low single digits, in line with the way people there are consuming media. 

Atifa Silk: So, you still believe in television? 

Keith Weed: To this day, the biggest and most powerful way to engage with people is through TV advertising and it will remain so for the foreseeable future. However, it is not the only way. We will see more and more campaigns that leverage many levers like social and mobile and video, and that is endlessly exciting. There are options for experimentation, but they are not compulsory. A big challenge for us is the fragmentation of brands. Consumers have more choices than ever before, and hence it’s more important for us to ensure we choose the right media. If you look at the recent past, there’s been a huge amount of activity in social and research, and it’s still important. Mobile is the next step up, but TV still plays a very powerful role.

Atifa Silk: How are you orchestrating integration? 

Luis Di Como: We need to see the end-to-end consumer journey. And so we want all of our communication to be an instrument for us to achieve that. We have just launched a campaign in the UK, which gives consumers different engagement with content. You can share the content from your mobile with Twitter or Facebook and you can even buy the product. It is a completely integrated, cross-platform journey that is compelling across all of the channels from end-to-end. 

Integration is a big challenge, but also an opportunity because in a way we must manage the conversation in more than a single language, and once we create a campaign it isn’t over. It is much more real-time. Today, with all of the opportunities that we have in paid, owned and earned, we can achieve personalisation at scale, and this brings together the content and the context. That’s what really matters — bringing all of these elements together. 

Atifa Silk: How do you ensure optimisation is for the brand, not the channel? 

Keith Weed: The biggest risk right now and the thing that keeps me awake at night is integration versus fragmentation. It is essential that our optimisation is done for the brand and not for the channel. We should be brand-centric and say, this is the right thing for the brand. We then will mobilise each of the different channels so that it is possible to make that work. People often say to me, you’re moving money from TV to mobile. But since 2008, we’ve increased our advertising spend on TV. While other people have been pulling back, we have done the opposite. So we have increased that, absolutely, but then we have also increased our spend on social, on search, and on mobile. 

Atifa Silk: Is mobile exciting or frightening for marketers?

Keith Weed: I don’t think advertisers have really got their minds around mobile. We have seen several good examples. Mobile means having great content and it is always-on, so it’s 24/7, 365 days a year. That’s a big challenge for marketers like us because we want always-on, quality content that is cost effective. Right now, we can have two out of three. We can be always-on and have quality content. Or we can be cost effective, but that isn’t going to be great content. That is why we have the [content] partnerships with the Viacoms and the NewsCorps of this world to try and make sure we can do that. 

And then what comes behind that of course is the data. At the end of the day, I don’t need to know who you are. I know where you live because that’s where your mobile is, and I know where you go to work because that’s where your mobile goes every day. And from that I can work out an awful lot about how we can then best serve you. 

Atifa Silk: Does ‘advertising’ belong in the mobile world?

Keith Weed: Not so long ago, everyone was striving for 360-degree communication. How quickly things change. Today, people are watching programmes on three screens. We’re now shifting from that all-round planning of integrated channels to a 365-days-a-year, always-on approach. Instead of rolling out big marketing campaigns three to four times a year, brands are reaching out to consumers 24/7 via mobile and social media. 

People have individual access to technology, content and our brands. Therefore, we must address people in the world by personalising content designed for the masses, but tailored to the individual. Targeting content for individual consumers in an intimate way builds relationships.

Content has changed completely. Today, people are watching programmes on three screens. And the quality of conversation about how we develop our brands is much more powerful than it was a few years ago when companies like Twitter were just getting going.  

Luis Di Como: Mobile is the device that connects the physical and the digital world. 

Atifa Silk: What makes good content? 

Keith Weed: If you’re busy enough and you have a free minute at work, you are going to want to spend that minute doing something that is interesting. So, the first thing is to find something that is interesting or useful. I think the other thing is you have to update your content. If I am at a party and I tell a joke, then in a few minutes I tell you the same joke, and a few minutes later the same joke again, you will start avoiding me completely. And brands often behave like that. I think they say the same thing and they make people feel like, ‘Oh, I’ve got the message’, and walk away. So I think what you have to do is update. First, make it useful, but then you have to update your content with something fresh.

Luis Di Como: And what is important is content and context. It could be fantastic content for me, but if it’s not the right context then it won’t work.

Atifa Silk: Who are the kings of mobile? 

Keith Weed: Our relationships with media partners have changed considerably, particularly over the last three years. As a global CMO, the relationship would be with a national-based media company. What’s happened now is that digital companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter have direct relationships and partnerships with us. This enables them to engage directly with us. We’re still working with our agencies and there is specialisation there. But the kings of mobile are actually the likes of Twitter and Facebook, not the agencies. 

Atifa Silk: What does big data mean for you when it comes to marketing purpose? 

Keith Weed: Targeting content for individual consumers in an intimate way builds relationships. If it is done well, it also cuts down on the clutter of unnecessary communications. My children are teenagers, so do not send me nappy ads on my phone. 

Big data is transforming the business and consumer environment. It should even make people’s lives easier: we are already able to tell a consumer when he’s walking in the park because we know his location on a hot day — because we know what the weather is like there — where the nearest place is to buy a Magnum and send him a code for a discount. That’s about the right message at the right time and at the right place. 

Luis Di Como: Big data is about personalisation and scale. One example we have of this is Hellmann’s Brazil ‘Recipe receipt’, where menu suggestions were printed out on the back of receipts, so they can combine mayonnaise with other ingredients that they had just bought at the supermarket. The consumer is able to use suggested meal ideas and the next step is that we can now use technology to immediately give meal ideas to shoppers as they walk past other ingredients. Here we have the content and the context together and are able to provide engagement at a local level. 

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