Michele Gerlack – Europe
European Indirect Communications Manager, Unilever Foods, United Kingdom.
By 2020 it is predicted that heart disease and strokes will be the leading cause of death and disability worldwide. A grim statistic, but one Michele Gerlack thinks has the power to motivate people as 80% of heart attacks and strokes can be prevented by making diet and lifestyle changes.
Michele Gerlack's job is to generate "outstanding PR ideas for the Flora/Becel brand that promote heart health and encourage more people to look after their heart." After all, she says, "it's the most precious thing you will ever own."
Love your Heart
Michele highlights Flora/Becel's 'Love your Heart' campaign as key to raising heart health awareness across Europe. "It's important to make people realise there are steps they can take to reduce the risk of heart disease, and lowering cholesterol is one of those."
Just as important is motivating people to act. Michele and her team developed an internet tool to help people calculate the age of their heart in comparison with their real age. "If you are 35 and find out your heart is equivalent to a 45 year old, it makes you think differently about your heart and how you can look after it." The tool has become an important part of the campaign and is being used to launch 'Love your Heart' campaigns in other countries.
World Heart Federation
Supporting the 'Love Your Heart' campaign is the World Heart Federation (WHF) – a leading international heart charity. Michele is the main contact for Unilever's partnership with the WHF - established in 2003. The partnership is committed to improve heart health by educating the public about the need to reduce consumption of saturated fats and lower cholesterol levels.
As Michele explains, partnering with an organisation like the WHF increases Unilever's credibility with opinion formers and consumers. As a corporate sponsor, Unilever supports WHF campaigns and activities, including the annual World Heart Health Day. Recently, Unilever helped launch a pilot social marketing project in Russia to raise awareness of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Working with key opinion formers
Michele's role within Unilever is unique but it reflects the importance key opinion formers (consumer and health care professionals, media, heart health experts and charities) play in the continued growth and credibility of the Flora/Becel brand with consumers.
"It's a challenge finding new and interesting ways to engage with the media on heart health but we have a great public health story to promote. Changing from butter to Flora/Becel can reduce your risk of heart disease, and the pro•activ range of foods are proven to significantly lower cholesterol."
The statistics are sobering. According to the WHF about 17.5 million people worldwide die of cardiovascular diseases every year, particularly heart attacks and strokes.
With seven out of ten people suffering from high cholesterol, products like Flora/Becel pro•activ – the world's best-selling cholesterol-lowering food brand – can play an active role in helping to reduce cholesterol levels. It's a role Michele is happy to promote.
"Unfairly, margarine (and by association Flora/Becel) is sometimes given a bad press by journalists. So part of my job is to manage the brand's image and reputation by correcting misleading facts and promoting the benefits of margarine within a healthy diet and lifestyle."
Michele looks for new and unique ways to reach consumers with positive brand messages. "Consumers are bombarded with advertising so we ensure that our brand's credibility is driven by other credible and non-traditional methods like word of mouth, where friends, family, doctors and the media recommend the product because they believe in its heart health benefits."
Michele joined Unilever in 2005, after spending five years as communications manager for the UK's Dairy Council. Prior to that she worked as a PR manager for a train operating company and spent four years as a journalist on a London newspaper – giving her a useful insight into the workings of the media. When she arrived at Unilever there was no centralised heart health campaign, now it is an important part of the Flora/Becel brand.
She says a common criticism from the media is that Unilever promotes heart health only to sell more products. "We have been supporting healthy hearts for many years by, for example, providing cholesterol and blood pressure testing. And Flora has sponsored the London Marathon since 1996."
As well as establishing PR as an integral part of the brand's marketing, one of her first achievements was to publish a manifesto setting out Flora/Becel's contribution to heart health. "I introduced it because there was a lot of cynicism towards the brand from the media and I wanted to correct that." She describes the manifesto as the brand's 'bible' and it is regularly sent to health care professionals and the media. "I feel lucky that I can work on a brand that makes a real and important difference to people's lives."