Unilever chief Keith Weed on how brands must adapt to 'evolution by consumer selection'

Keith Weed
Keith Weed

Unilever chief marketing officer Keith Weed is to outline his vision for brand evolution at the Advertising Association's annual summit this week. Here, he explains what lies behind Unilever's strategy.

In a resource-constrained world, marketing plays a key role in driving social, economic and environmental progress. But we need to look at different models that can help us adapt to the change that consumers are driving – something I call 'evolution by consumer selection'.

Everywhere we look, we see the economic nightmare; yet marketing can help us meet this challenge. According to McKinsey, in the past 10 years the contribution that advertising made to GDP in the G20 countries is, on average, 10%-15% – maybe as much as 20%.

Survival of the fittest

This term is associated with Charles Darwin, but he apparently never used it. Darwin talked of 'evolution by natural selection'; the organisms best suited to their environment would be most likely to flourish. That is how I think about brands. Success will come to those that are most adaptable and stay indispensable to consumers' lives.

Looking beyond the economy at other big drivers

The first of these drivers is the shift of economic power to the East and South. The centre of gravity is more New Delhi than New York. Second is sustainability – not just environment, but sustainability in every sense. Third is the impact of digital technology; the way in which it is changing consumers' lifestyles and behaviour.

Developments in ambient technology mean that computing won't be locked up in devices: it will be everywhere and in everything. By 2020, as much as two-thirds of digital data will pass through the cloud; all devices will be connected.

The consumer in charge

Driven by the rapid advances in social media, the individual citizen feels empowered to take action on his or her own behalf. This trend is set to accelerate rapidly in 2012. We should embrace it by moving from creating brands to curating them – developing an environment so consumers can truly 'live' these brands.

This is a different type of consumer engagement and requires different ways of working. We now have global, direct relationships with media companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Apple in a way not possible with national media companies.

Adapt or die

There are three things our industry needs to adapt:

  • Become more integrated so that our brands are more integrated.
  • Invest in our talent development and capabilities.
  • Use marketing as a driver of social, economic and environmental progress.

New industry models for integration

With the new model of 'paid', 'owned' and 'earned' media, content creation and distribution are transforming the communication/advertising model, and the roles of the advertisers, agencies and media-owners are evolving. Consumers are creating content and the cloud allows them to see whatever they want, whenever and on whichever screen.

We need new industry models that truly integrate all our communications to ensure that consumers engage with brands that offer a consistent message and brand experience.

Investing in talent development and capabilities

At Unilever, we've developed our 'Crafting brands for life' strategy and development programme based on the idea that marketing should balance 'logic and magic'. It's about creating a strategy that puts people's lives at the centre. If they drive the agenda, we must learn from them. Only by truly knowing them can we do what's right for them.

Marketing as a driver of social, economic and environmental progress

Consumers love brands. They simplify lives, short-cutting decisions and shopping. Brands can also help simplify an increasingly complex media and resource-constrained world.

Marketers have an incredible opportunity to work alongside consumers to shape positively the lives of generations of consumers to come; to make marketing noble again and achieve sustainable growth – sustainable economic, environmental and social growth.

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