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Behind the brand: Sunlight – Unilever’s 139-year old blockbuster brand


From branded soaps to enzyme-powered dishwashing and from championing women to protecting the planet, Sunlight has aways been on the frontline of innovation and improvement. Here’s a whistlestop tour of Unilever’s trailblazing €1 billion brand.

A selection of Sunlight bottles, tablets and packages with a sunburst in the background. 

How it started

Since its very early days in Victorian England, Sunlight has always been a brand that has done things a little differently.

It was one of the first laundry soaps , for example, to experiment with new formulations. Always looking for ways to improve his products and ease the burden of daily cleaning, William Hesketh Lever quickly discovered that by replacing the traditional tallow with glycerine and vegetable fats, he could offer customers a soap that delivered an easier lather with less effort.

It was just one of the many claims advertised on the soap’s distinctive wrapping paper – another first at the time. A testament to Lever’s instinct for marketing, Sunlight’s unique packaging not only reminded shoppers of the product’s superiority but also reassured them of its effectiveness by offering a £1,000 purity guarantee.

Unsurprisingly, Sunlight was a hit, and it was not long before 450 tonnes of Sunlight soap were being made each week.

But of course William and James Lever, the joint founders of the company and exceptionally forward thinking, did not just build a soap factory. Echoing the social purpose that would power the brand over its 139- year history , they also created a purpose-built village for workers, complete with allotments, schools, a hospital and leisure and entertainment facilities.

a vintage square bar of Sunlight soap in brown paper, branded packaging

How it’s going

Sunlight is now one of Unilever Home Care’s billion euro brands , and the second most globally chosen brand in the home care sector, according to Kantar’s Brand Footprint.

And while South Africa is home to the brand’s full dishwashing, laundry and personal care range, Sunlight dishwashing products are hugely popular in a growing number of markets, including India and South-East Asia.

Over the last ten years, the brand’s top five markets – India, Indonesia, South Africa, Vietnam and Thailand, which account for 80% of the business – have all seen steady growth.

In its constant quest to serve the growing needs of consumers, Sunlight has led the evolution of the category from soap bars to dishwashing liquid – always focusing on solving cleaning challenges such as odour, grease and bacteria.

More recently, Sunlight has also been a frontrunner in leveraging cleaner technologies to obtain superior performance. The introduction of bio-enzymes (see below) in hand dishwashing liquid, for example, resulted in a product that works faster on encrusted food.

Sunlight was also the world’s first dishwashing liquid to include ingredients made from carbon captured from industrial emissions.

five bottle sof Sunlight products in a circle around More than Degreasing text

The purpose that powers it

From its very early days, Sunlight championed a woman’s right to go beyond her household responsibilities and pursue interests outside the home. The Sunlight annual almanac, for example, first published in 1898, aimed to give women an insight into politics, finance and the arts, while Port Sunlight also boasted cycling, art and music groups for women.

Today, the brand defines its purpose as helping to unlock the untapped power of women in society. It has put this commitment into practice by celebrating women who have pursued their ambitions and by supporting female entrepreneurship on the ground through a variety of educational programmes.

In 2020, for example, Sunlight in Vietnam provided aspiring women entrepreneurs with training and access to finance in order to help them start their own businesses.

As part of the training programme, and thanks to a partnership with Meta, women were able to use the Messenger platform to access three one-to-one business training sessions via a chatbot.

The programme has trained more than 65,000 women to date and funded more than 1,000 projects .

Campaigns like these have helped women across the world make significant progress in their lives while also helping Sunlight connect emotionally with its audience and differentiate itself from the competition.

Three women working on sewing machines smile at a child learning to sew by hand

Brand new ideas

  1. Product: Naturally cleaner

    yellow and blue Ad for a Sunlight washing up liquid

    Sunlight has always worked to ease household chores . Most recently, this has involved leveraging the power of bio-enzymes: tiny, naturally derived proteins that specialise in speeding up cleaning. Already used in laundry and machine dishwashing products, Sunlight was the first Unilever hand dishwashing liquid to include this powerful new ingredient. The result? Sunlight with bio-enzymes now works up to ten times faster on encrusted food, saving consumers time and effort.

  2. Campaign: Supporting female ‘foodpreneurs’

    A woman stands proudly behind a table of food with her family with a banner above her and people applauding

    Sunlight champions women who want to pursue ambitions outside the home. That is why in 2022 it joined forces with Tokopedia, one of Indonesia’s biggest e-commerce retailers, to organise online training sessions for female food entrepreneurs.

    Reflecting the brand’s commitment to supporting female entrepreneurs, the Tokopedia partnership aims to support 5 million Indonesian women, educate 150,000 female food entrepreneurs and digitalise 48,900 women-run food businesses by 2025. This campaign was recognised in 2022 as the Smarties Gold Winner for Social Impact Marketing.

  3. Packaging: Blazing a trail for recycling

    Bottle of sunlight with green liquid

    Sunlight was the first of Unilever’s brands in South Africa to introduce bottles made from 100% recycled plastic as well as being fully recyclable. The move not only reduced Sunlight’s own environmental footprint but also inspired consumers to play their part by recycling and choosing products with more sustainable credentials.

    “With the No.1 selling dishwashing liquid in South Africa, we believe Sunlight has a responsibility to lead the agenda in sustainability,” says Brand Manager Caroline Blumrick.

It might surprise you to learn…

Sunlight was the first Unilever brand to be built from purpose. In the late 19th century, William Lever was determined to revolutionise hygiene for the Victorians, and Sunlight soap was the first step in a purpose-driven brand history that has lasted over a century.

Iconic ads

  1. Making Time for Dreams

    Highlighting the burden household chores can place on women, this ad showcases Sunlight’s commitment to empowering women by providing products that do the job fast, so that they can conquer other challenges and passions in their lives.

  2. Women who want more

    Sunlight champions a woman’s right to work outside the home and pursue her own dreams. The messaging of this ad from Vietnam highlights not only the positive impact this can have on individuals but also the ripple effect it can create on their families and communities.

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