Unilever’s CMO speaks about making sustainable living commonplace

Speaking at the Marketing Society annual conference, and a year on from the launch of Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, Keith Weed, Unilever Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, stressed the importance of foresight and the role that brands and marketing can play in making sustainable living commonplace.

“The role of marketing is to create sustainable growth which, in a business like ours, is consumer demand-led growth. But sustainable growth in a resource-constrained world is, for Unilever, not just about economic sustainability but also about environmental and social sustainability. We all need to grow our business not just for today, but for the generations to come,” Weed said.

It is estimated that by 2050 there will be 2.7 billion more people on earth than today; with urbanisation rising from 50% to 69%. By 2015, half the population of developing countries will live in urban areas: 0.6 bn of the 0.7 bn population increase in developing markets will be in urban homes, and 1.3 bn people will live in urban slums with increased hygiene needs.

This increased population and urbanisation presents opportunities for companies like Unilever, but as the company has made public its ambition to double its size whilst reducing its impact, it also presents challenges. The answer to how to grow a business while helping people and protecting the environment, said Weed, is with the consumers – and with the brands and companies that engage with them.

Weed warned, however, that the key to harnessing the power of brands to drive change is not in consumer insight. He said, “Great brands, and great companies, have always walked ahead of consumers. They have a point of view. They don’t just respond to current needs – what consumers say they want now - they anticipate what consumers will need, or might need in future, and they shape markets accordingly. 

"As Henry Ford allegedly said, if he’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse. It’s about imagining a different future and designing for it. I want the Unilever brand to be the quality mark for Sustainable Living.”

Just because a consumer can’t articulate a need or a worry doesn’t mean that it isn’t there, and that there isn’t a big opportunity. 

For example, some of the countries which are the most important for Unilever’s laundry business, such as India, China and Turkey, are becoming increasingly water-stressed. One of the biggest uses of domestic water is laundry: currently people wash in one bucket of water and rinse with three; Chinese consumers rinse with five. To address this, Unilever developed a new technology and product – Comfort One Rinse – which delivers great cleaning performance with just one bucket of rinsing water.

“We are currently in challenging and volatile times – but they are also times of powerful opportunities and the best time to lead for a better future. Marketers have a key role here: if we take the lead, we can create sustainable growth. But it requires us to think and act differently, and develop new business models if we are to make the sustainable growth agenda mainstream. With sustainability as a source of growth and innovation, we can collectively make sustainable living commonplace,” concluded Weed.


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