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Transforming our brands, transforming our advertising

Average read time: 9 minutes

Our brands reach billions of people every day. The way we develop, design and market our products has the power to influence society and culture.

Young woman with irregular dark freckles on her face

Breaking down barriers

As the owner of 400+ brands that are sold in over 190 countries and used by 3.4 billion people a day, and as one of the world’s biggest advertisers, we want to use our influence to shape a more diverse, inclusive and unstereotypical society.

A group of different types of Unilever products

Harmful social norms and stereotypes limit expectations of what people can be and what they can do. They reinforce inequality and foster discrimination. They’re barriers to a fairer world – but we believe they can be taken down. We’re driving change on a number of fronts.

A more representative picture of a changing world

Covid-19 has exacerbated existing inequalities and deepened divides. The pandemic has brought gender inequality more sharply into focus as more women have carried the responsibilities of childcare and home-schooling. And the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has exposed deeply entrenched racial injustice, sparking discussions and protests about systemic racism the world over.

74%Of consumers expect brands to take a stand on issues

74% of consumers globally expect brands to take a stand on issues such as racial discrimination, equal rights and social justice. Now more than ever, it’s important our brands strive for greater inclusion. That means portraying a diverse set of characters and creating unstereotypical images and progressive stories that help to normalise more inclusive values and behaviours.

We’ve been on a mission to Unstereotype our advertising since 2016 – eradicating outdated stereotypes and advancing more progressive portrayals of people. When we set out on this path, we looked at our own advertising as well as industry advertising. This analysis showed that 40% of women did not relate at all to the women they saw in adverts, just 3% of industry advertising featured women in leadership roles, and only 2% showed women as intelligent. Fast forward to 2020 and 98% of our global advertisements that we tested were unstereotypical and 60% were strongly progressive.

Young woman smiling against a blue sky

However, despite the progress made, the advertising industry is still under-representing many communities, both on screen and behind the camera, including people with disabilities, people in the LGBTQI+ community and people from black or ethnic minority backgrounds. And for too long, our own ads were part of a culture that reinforced tired ideas, showing a different society to the one we all really live in.

And for too long, our own ads were part of a culture that reinforced tired ideas, showing a different society to the one we all really live in. Our latest research with Kantar shows that people are increasingly disconnected from advertising with less than one in five people believing that ads are representative of wider society, fuelling concerns that advertising could consign itself to history if it doesn’t rebuild its own image.

We found that nearly one in two people from marginalised communities feel they have been stereotyped in some way through advertising. And it isn’t just marginalised people who feel the impact: 71% believe stereotypes in the media are harming the younger generation. The research showed that 66% of consumers also believe ads can change our view of the world and want to see stereotypes removed.

The power our industry holds and the influence we have on billions of people every day is a privilege and we must use it well. By unstereotyping our communications, we’re not only creating more effective campaigns but also helping to rid the world of the entrenched norms that are holding people back.

Aline Santos, our former Chief Brand Officer and Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer

Transforming our marketing

Father and young son in a kitchen doing the washing up together

We are challenging ourselves to create marketing, not just advertising, that will help influence the next generation of people to be free from prejudice. Act 2 Unstereotype is our new commitment to drive systemic change.

By serving more diverse people in a progressive way, we believe our brands can be at the forefront of shaping a fairer and more inclusive world.

When we unstereotype our advertising, our audiences respond. We’re seeing data that proves that ads with more progressive, modern and empowered characters create better business results – such as greater branded impact, enjoyment of ads and relevance. Our research shows that more progressive advertising has the potential to deliver 74% better brand power – a key measure of consumer attraction for brands. And our 2020 research with Kantar tells us that progressive ads deliver a 13% uplift in purchase intent and increase credibility by around a third.

Unstereotyping Influencer Brand Content

Influencer speaking to live audience

We believe that social media and influencers are a source of great connection, community, and inspiration for all consumers, in particular Gen Z. But because social platforms play a powerful role in shaping social attitudes and building brand relationships, it is often these platforms where stereotypes can be most prevalent and easily perpetuated (knowingly or unknowingly). To help address this, Unilever's Act 2 Unstereotype has announced an ambition to eradicate stereotypes from influencer brand content. A new survey of Gen Z consumers, conducted by Unilever’s Act 2 Unstereotype, revealed that 64% of respondents feel stereotypes on social media are making the world feel unsafe and 73% believe they’re creating an increasingly divided society.

We have worked with the influencer community to co-create a new open-source guide to help influencers ensure their content does not perpetuate harmful stereotypes and reflects themselves and the world more authentically. We are now calling on all influencers, brands and the industry to join with us to tackle stereotypes.

You can access Unilever’s 10 Ways to Unstereotype Influencer Brand Content guide HERE (PDF 6.6 MB)

This new ambition is in addition to our existing 100% ban on any digital alteration to change a person’s body shape, size, proportions or skin colour.

Disability Inclusion

At Unilever, we strive to be a beacon of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (ED&I); and fundamental to this is the representation and inclusion of persons with disabilities, throughout all areas of our business.

As one of the world’s largest advertisers, Unilever has a responsibility to eradicate outdated stereotypes in advertising and to advance more progressive portrayals of people - this is the reason why we launched the Unstereotype initiative in 2016, and subsequently Act 2 Unstereotype in 2021. Through Act 2 Unstereotype, we ensure Unilever is contributing towards an equitable and inclusive society, using the power and scale of our brands to drive real and lasting change.

Ultimately, we want to accurately reflect the lived experiences of the communities that we serve. With 15% of the global population currently identifying as living with a disability, it is critical that our brands continue to live up to our values by putting stereotypes aside and humanity first.

Unilever’s Inclusive Production Toolkit

Person with disability mentee

There is a huge wealth of talent in the disability community that could, and should, be better represented in the advertising and the production industry, and Unilever is working to create more opportunities for disability inclusion - both in front of and behind the camera. As part of our Act 2 Unstereotype initiative, in January 2023, we acted by internally announcing our Inclusive Set Commitment, the first commitment of its kind, stating that every Unilever triple-bid production over €100k must include at least one intern or crew member from the disability community.

As part of this commitment, the Unilever Advertising Production team collaborated with Bus Stop films and Inclusively Made, pioneering, not for profit organisations using filmmaking to raise the profile of people living with disability. We produced the Inclusive Production Toolkit to provide practical guidance on how to collaborate with persons with a disability, and build towards a future of inclusive commercial filmmaking.

We know that systemic change can only be achieved if we work together, so Unilever is open-sourcing the Inclusive Production Toolkit. This is to ensure that marketers, agencies, and production companies, industry-wide, have access to the education, tools and frameworks as the first step in becoming disability-confident and inclusive of the disability community.

Download Unilever’s Inclusive Production Toolkit. (PDF 5.09 MB)

Accelerating change across Unilever

We’ve taken some important steps already and many of our brands have found new, unstereotyped ways to connect with their audiences.

We’re continuing to accelerate change in Unilever – and by acting together, across the industry as a whole.

Image of Aline Santos

If we want to see systemic change in society, we need to see systemic change in our industry. Inclusive marketing is not a choice any more; we must act now.

Aline Santos, our former Chief Brand Officer and Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer
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