Evie Barrett
Feb 23, 2023

Unilever ‘misstepped’ with initial purpose message, says head of comms

At PRWeek’s Corporate and Public Affairs Summit yesterday, Paul Matthews discussed how Unilever has reworked its sustainability messaging in recent years.

Unilever ‘misstepped’ with initial purpose message, says head of comms

“Unilever fundamentally believes that, over the long term, our sustainable business model will drive superior performance,” said Paul Matthews, head of comms and corporate affairs at Unilever, when asked about developing a responsible business position amid backlash from shareholders and investors.

“I think where Unilever perhaps overstepped a few years ago was talking about brand purpose in isolation to everything else you need for a brand to grow and be successful. You need great innovation, you need the right pricing point, you need it to be available. 

“The messaging that we put around brand purpose was potentially slightly too focused on purpose without the extra context – that’s where I think we probably misstepped.”

He continued: “What we’re also trying to do is break the paradigm which says that sustainability and business performance don’t go hand in hand. It’s about making sure that we are clear about the business case for sustainability. 

“We’re not an NGO, we’re a corporation, so we have to be clear about sustainability as a performance driver, rather than just a good thing to do for society. That’s a key shift we’ve tried to make in recent years,” he said.

Matthews told delegates at PRWeek’s Corporate and Public Affairs Summit yesterday that the gradual conflation of concepts such as ‘sustainability’, ‘purpose’ and ‘ESG’ has posed a further challenge, creating another layer of confusion.

The Unilever comms boss also spoke about the difficulty of being a global brand and having to make sure not to advocate for conflicting causes in different markets.

“We often see the risk,” he said. “There are two parts to it. One is defining a global position, and the second thing is making sure it’s well understood across our organisation.

“I see it happening sometimes where so much work goes into actually creating the position, but just as important is the translation of that, and the understanding of that locally, so you know you’re not having a situation where teams in different countries are lobbying against each other.”

Matthews estimated that Unilever’s corporate communications team is made up of about 220 people globally. The consumer goods company has more than 400 brands including Ben & Jerry's, Dove, Persil, Domestos, Vaseline and Hellmann's, and operates in 190 countries.


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