Rafe Ring
Aug 26, 2013

Innovation Insiders: Aline Santos Farhat, Unilever's global SVP for 'Dirt is Good'

In his series that goes inside global companies to see how they are making innovation a central part of how they do business, Rafe Ring, CMO and co-founder of Global Insights Group, sat down with Sao Paulo-based Aline Santos Farhat, driving Unilever’s global innovations for Dirt is Good.

Surf Excel: Stains are good
Surf Excel: Stains are good

Rafe Ring: To put Unilever Laundry into context for our readers, can you talk about the overall size of the business globally, and also tell us how Unilever Laundry became known as “Dirt is Good”?

Aline Santos: Well, Unilever Laundry business is by far the leading laundry business in developing and emerging markets , and Dirt is Good brands (OMO, Breeze, Surf Excel, Persil, Ala etc…) are leading brands, growing strongly year on year. Overall Dirt is Good annual turnover is over 3.5 billion Euros.

Rafe Ring: And the ‘Dirt is Good brand, how did that evolve?

Aline Santos: Unilever has been in the Laundry market for more than a 100 years. Over those years, the products and claims started to become very similar among all competitors…Similar formulations, similar claims , similar marketing strategies…. That was what I call 'the war of molecules'. Unilever was not winning that war, and something more radical needed to be done.

That´s when we came up with the ambition of humanising the laundry category. Removing the monolithic functional positioning to a bigger equity approach. We decided to offer more than great products, but also a fresh insight about dirt and its relation to human development. It is an indisputable truth that only by getting dirty that you experience life, learn and develop. It is only by being free to get dirty that you can really unleash your full potential. Therefore actually, there is good behind getting dirty! And when it comes to all the stains behind…no worries, OMO will take care of them.

So, from a brand and a category that was suggesting fear from getting dirty we became a brand that was incentivising dirt. With this positioning we changed the dialogue of the category, to a much more relevant /engaging subject to our target. Our brand message was beyond any mere functional benefit. It was also about a higher order—a higher purpose, child development. This dramatic change in positioning was one of the key factors to transform a business of 350 million to over 3.5 billion in seven years.

Rafe Ring: Every company is talking about innovation—from Microsoft and Citibank to Philips and Coca-Cola—but each has a different take on what innovation actually means. Given the size and strategic importance of Dirt is Good to Unilever, how do you view innovation, and how is it playing a role in maintaining your competitive advantage?


Aline Santos Farhat

Aline Santos: Innovation in Unilever is integral to our business strategy. But you know, innovation is not only related to technology and product. It is related to how we define a brand purpose, its functional benefits, its product features, its benefits in user experience, its packaging, its display in the point of contact with consumers, its communication. Innovation encompasses all these points, as an umbrella and Unilever´s corporate strategy is directing us to creating sustainable innovation growth.

Rafe Ring: What do you mean by ‘sustainable innovation growth’?

Aline Santos: Well, the Dirt is Good Strategic Innovation Direction is very consonant to Unilever´s corporate strategic vision. Consumers are more and more conscious about who are the companies behind brands, and having a strong ethical corporate agenda in Unilever has been very critical to us.

We are creating a business based on sustainable growth; equitable growth. As Unilever we have the ambition to double our business whilst reducing our environmental impact by half. This means creating a long-term model which respects and contributes to the future of world, at the same time giving us a competitive advantage.

Globally, great technological advancements are being made every day—the world´s laundry machines and heaters produce less greenhouse gases, and our cars are able to run more efficiently. However, strikingly this has not resulted in a decrease in energy use. We are still consuming natural resources at a rate faster than the earth can replenish them. Jeff Rubin coined the phrase 'the efficiency paradox': although technology makes things more efficient, we tend to use more of it, effectively neutralising any positive impact of technological advancements. 

The other imperative for innovation is speed. The world is changing at a speed never seen before, and businesses need to be ahead of it. We are also looking at our business models within this context and planning our future in this respect.

Rafe Ring: What do you personally see as Dirt is Good’s most innovative development in the last two years? What excites you about it?

Aline Santos: Let me answer your question by first talking about human behaviour. Fundamental behavioural change across all levels of society is what is needed to create a sustainable future. Governments and industry will have to change, but so will individual citizens.

However, behavioural change presents an enormous challenge. Humans are creatures of habit, and behaviour is complex and influenced by many factors. Inspiring new habits is difficult; behaviours cannot simply be changed overnight. That’s why some of the most interesting innovations we have developed are related to challenging habit changes. For example, the introduction of concentrated liquids required a big change in consumer habits; nevertheless it has benefited the world with less packaging, fewer chemicals, less transportation etc. and yet giving more efficient results for consumers in their laundry. Other examples are products that use technology to operate at lower temperatures and also formulations that require less rinsing water. But to date, one of the big changes we have influenced, believe it or not, has been the change in parenting styles and attitudes to dirt in our most established Dirt is Good markets. One of our biggest innovations is our Dirt is Good philosophy itself.

Rafe Ring: How has the pace of change in the digital environment and consumer empowerment impacted how you innovate and go to market?

Aline Santos: Well as you know, we are living through a technological, digital revolution, and the world is becoming faster and more and more open. As Don Tapscott suggests, there are four drivers for openness that are transforming business, economy and society: collaboration, transparency, sharing and empowerment. Those drivers give us almost instant knowledge of things that we have never known before, and bring us to the exciting age of “networked intelligence”. This is an iconic time to be in global business and global marketing; I’m delighted to have the challenge of being the first generation of truly global marketers in the digital revolution! This is the most exciting time to be in marketing.

Rafe Ring: Speaking of excitement, most marketers are animated when they talk about the explosive growth of mobile. How does the global shift to mobile devices impact on innovations for Dirt is Good globally?

Aline Santos: Mobiles have a fundamental role in terms of connecting consumers digitally around the world. In some D&E countries, like Brazil, the number of mobiles has surpassed one per habitant. Obviously we are leveraging this fantastic vehicle to increase our awareness, engagement and even the accessibility of our products (e-commerce). This is especially important since our business is so large in D&E markets. Our markets are not 'PC first and optimise for mobile,' they aren’t even 'mobile-first' markets. Many of them are mobile-only markets. That means any information, brand communication or sales activity in digital channels must work first and foremost on a mobile phone.

Rafe Ring: Your CEO Paul Polman is quoted as saying “We need to drive speed and Innovation as fast as it can go without the wheels falling off.’ Does that involve any specific defined process or methodology you use internally to drive innovation? How does it work?

Aline Santos: Speed is of the essence. In today´s world we have seen a regime collapsed within 17 days in Egypt, we have seen old “solid” corporations vanish in the market, but also new business models emerge with even stronger power and force to change. In the FMCG industry this is no different. We need to operate according to new business models that are more open, ethical, that use and leverage partnerships in a more collaborative way with suppliers, independent groups and of course, consumers.

Co-creation and collaboration have never been so high in our agenda, as a means to unlock speed in innovation. There are innumerous ways of thinking about co-creation. The one that I am most excited about is the co-creation with our loyal consumers…those consumers who absolutely love the brand and bring you the most interesting and innovative ideas. At Unilever we have a strategic partnership with the world’s biggest co-creation community, eYeka, in which we are leveraging maximum potential of this new way of operating.

Rafe Ring: Can you tell us how such a massive global brand like Dirt is Good innovates to meet demands and engage consumers in quite disparate and unique markets?

Aline Santos: Dirt is Good brand is present in more than 70 countries, its geographic scope is as wide and exciting as the different consumer habits and needs. Despite travelling globally for more than 10 years , and visiting different consumers around the world, my knowledge about local insights will never be as rich and sharp as the knowledge of my local colleagues. The success of this brand is in large part related to the quality of the local insights, be it a small nuance or a fundamental habit difference. My colleagues are co-responsible and co-owners of the global innovation we have for the brand in each unique market.

Rafe Ring: It's a fact that people will make mistakes as part of the innovation process. Innovation inevitably leads to some failures. In your experience what has been Dirt is Good’s biggest failure—and what did you learn from it?

Aline Santos: Honestly, I cannot remember a big failure in the brand. Our consumer knowledge and constant engagement has given us a fantastic rate of success. Perhaps our biggest failure was not to anticipate a launch of a new product or format, or being late in the markets where we operate, but the majority of things that go into the market are exceeding our expectations.

Rafe Ring: Can you talk about any regionally focused product innovations that are designed to meet the changing needs of your consumers?

Aline Santos: The world is becoming more and more connected and more similar in
many ways. In the laundry category, there are many similarities, and therefore the need to tailor-make mixes is less and less. The biggest challenge for us is not in creating specific technologies for different countries, but to create ways to engage with our consumers, via all different types of communication vehicles, that are exciting, meaningful, and relevant in order that an intimate relationship can take place in different cultures.

Rafe Ring: As a marketer, what’s the most challenging and exciting opportunity you see in bringing Dirt is Good innovations to market?

Aline Santos: The most challenging and exciting opportunity for Dirt is Good is to create positive change in terms of laundry behaviours, such as using concentrated products, less water usage for cleaning and rinsing products, lower temperature washing, etc. It’s all about contributing to more sustainable growth for the world.

The other area is to continue to contribute in the area of child development, in which we have been changing the relation of consumers with dirt, so that they can see the benefits of allowing their kids to go out and get dirty, learn and develop. In SEA our commitment of creating green parks in urban areas and providing playgrounds for schools is to build over a thousand parks and playgrounds. Today we are halfway there. But the most exciting time for the brand is still to come.

Rafe Ring: Finally, what advice you would offer C-level executives who want to foster a culture of innovation inside their own organisation?

Aline Santos: One part inspiring vision, one part ongoing alignment and excitement
around that vision (up, down and sideways through the organisation), and two parts freedom to get on with it. 

If you’re an ‘Innovation Insider’ with a story, email rafe.ring@globalinsightsgroup.com.

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