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Unilever CMO discusses the hottest trends in marketing right now

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Keith Weed, Unilever CMO, talks about the hottest trends in marketing, collaboration with start-ups and how Unilever uses Smart Data.

Keith Weed is the Chief Marketing & Communications Officer of Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant. He is responsible for all the Company’s Marketing and Communications, which involves not only the external marketing to consumers, but all internal communications as well. He also steers their Sustainable Business function. After he delivered the keynote address at this year’s AdTech London conference, we got the chance to ask Keith a few questions.

How has the role of the CMO changed over the course of your career?

I think it has changed more in last 5 years than in the 30 years since I started out in marketing. It’s much more diverse now. There are more platforms and channels to reach people on than ever before – and new ones springing up all the time. What hasn’t changed is the focus on the consumer, and how that must remain central. A great creative idea that connects with people should always be our focus – not chasing after the latest technology just because we can.

It’s also become more holistic, for me at least. My current role as CMO at Unilever includes not just traditional CMO responsibilities, but also internal and external communications, external affairs, sustainability and the Unilever corporate brand. So lots of changes, and lots more still to come I don’t doubt!

What are the most exciting trends in marketing right now?

There are so many things coming down the line, such as AI and VR, that are going to change the way we build our brands. The explosion of the Internet of Things, and how my machines will talk to your machines will be transformative. But if we are talking about right now, then I’d have to say mobile. Its growth and adoption is still increasing at a phenomenal rate and we are only at the very start of being able to offer really targeted one to one communications at scale with this medium. That’s a very exciting space for marketers at the moment.

How do you transition from being an owner of Big Data to taking useful insights from that data?

If we start by putting things in perspective, historically, data was always big in relation to the computation power we had access to. The more important conversation to have is about what we do with it – making it ‘Smart Data’ to make smart decisions, and to allow us to build more one to one relationships. Two billion people use Unilever products every day and with the explosion of smart data that we seeing, it is becoming increasingly feasible for a big FMCG company like us to build one to one relationships, powered by data. We can start to see people as people, as individuals, and talk to them 1-2-1, rather than en masse.

Part of this is replacing some of the older techniques – listening to social conversations and analyzing sentiment is great and necessary, but is not sufficient in itself. Today it is about high end analytics to provide ‘integrated insights’ – overlaying information and data sources such as social data with shipment data or media spend for example, to provide holistic insights. This is something we are constantly being able to do more and more of, and it is driving a change in the way we think about insights.

What do you believe is the best way to tackle the growing challenge of online ad blocking?

People have always had the opportunity to ‘ad block’ – it just used to involve leaving the room to make a cup of tea while the adverts came on rather than downloading a piece of software. The best way to tackle it is the same as it has always been – focusing on creating content that people actively want to seek out, rather than something they consider an interruption or an inconvenience.

How is Unilever partnering with start-ups?

Our platform for our brands to engage with the world of start-ups is called the Unilever Foundry, and we launched it two years ago. The entrepreneurial community is disrupting traditional business models and the Foundry provides a great way for our brands to engage with and harness this kind of experimental thinking. At the same time it gives entrepreneurs and start-ups the opportunity to benefit from the knowledge and scale that we have as a business. To date we have partnered with 75 start-ups and invested around £10million. It’s a new way of thinking about how we collaborate with the best talent out there and embedding a ‘launch and learn’ approach, rather than continual rounds of testing.

Will increasing demand for sustainability lead to collaboration not only with start-ups, but also with competing brands?

We are already seeing this through partnerships such as Collecitively.org, which has over 30 corporate partners who are traditionally competitors, such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi or Unilever and Nestle. We’ve all put our weight behind Collectively because we know that together we can create change on a scale that is fundamental. By all taking small steps, suddenly together we’ve taken a giant leap forward – and that is what the platform is about.

Unilever now does the majority of its business in emerging markets. What are the major differences between marketing to consumers in a region such as Western Europe and marketing to consumers in a region such as East Africa?

On the face of it you might think those groups of consumers have nothing in common, but there are increasing synergies of human truths. A young guy who lives in Mumbai for example, will have more in common with adolescents in Shanghai and São Paulo than with his mother and grandparents in Mumbai. So for our marketing it’s about finding that balance between global and local, understanding through great insights what the similarities to leverage are, and where we need to be tailoring to local culture.

Our focus on sustainability plays an interesting role here. Marketing a laundry product that uses three times less water to someone in the UK taps into an ethical dimension for purchase, but for a young woman in East Africa, it could mean significantly less time transporting water and physically doing washing – so it’s a much more practical consideration.

There are also physical differences to how we market to consumers in areas that are traditionally ‘media dark’, such as India, compared to where we put our media spend in more developed markets. Reaching people through their feature phones in India for example and through people on the ground in remote markets, whereas in Europe we are increasingly moving to digital.

As an increasing number of graduates are drawn to start-ups and tech companies, how has Unilever managed to retain its position as one of the most desirable employers?

A colleague and I talked about this just recently at an event run by LinkedIn – you can watch the presentation here. In short, it’s about purpose; embedding it through the company and through our brands, so that people identify with it and it drives them to come to work. It’s a powerful thing.

Finally, what advice would you give to someone entering the workplace as a marketer? Are there any particular skills you would advise them to try and develop?

My advice would be to tool up and get prepared. In today’s fast changing world marketers need to be savvy about reaching consumers how and when they want. As an industry we need to focus on building capability – I think that often we are too busy chopping wood to stop and sharpen the axe. As a people business we can only be as innovative and effective as the skillsets of our people allow. For anyone entering the workplace now it’s critical to understand how marketing to consumers works in a digital world, and how to build a brand within it.