Unilever's Aline Santos: my mother told me I was born an activist

Today, Unilever's executive vice-president of global marketing is driving industry-wide change - but when she first moved to VP level at the FMCG giant, there were more fundamental issues to address, she writes.

Change is all around us - it’s inevitable. The digital world is influencing everything: how we live, work and play. However, embracing that change and letting it manifest into something positive – that’s optional.

What keeps me grounded during these times of change is my purpose: to act for positive change in society and business. My purpose is my true north, which allows me to stare change straight into the eye.

Activating your inner activism

History has shown us the power of social movements; where people stand up, unite and rally for their rights. In recent years we’re seeing this more, where the evolving world of digital has meant these movements are now just a #MeToo away.

My mother always told me that I was born an activist, and that it was no coincidence that I was born on Human Rights Day. Ever since I was little girl I’ve been fighting for causes I believe in, whether it was in the classroom or during the early stages of my career – I’ve never settled for the status quo.

This is still a big part of who I am today, whether I’m rallying the industry to remove stereotypes in advertising through #Unstereotype and The Unstereotype Alliance with UN Women or pushing the boundaries for diversity and inclusion. It’s this sense of activism that has been burning inside me throughout my whole life.

Whether you welcome it or not, you will encounter change in your career and in your life. But when you are clear on your inner motivations and have your feet firmly on the ground, you won’t be shaken by change.

Pioneering your purpose

It’s amazing to think that it once wasn’t commonplace for women to hold senior positions in global companies. That 18 years ago, when I was promoted to VP of Unilever Brazil, I found myself on a new floor with no access to a female restroom. Of course, that had to change, and my first call of duty was to build a female restroom.

Fast forward to today, where I find myself humbled and inspired when I look around at all the accomplished men and women I work with, who instead of being restricted by toilet access or other nuisances are celebrated and supported instead.

We should never feel afraid to stand up and speak out about having the same rights and opportunities. For me, first I invested in gaining the trust of my colleagues so that then I could pave the way. And it doesn’t need to feel like a war, but instead we should always come armed with passion and facts in your arsenal. Fundamentally, a pioneer doesn’t voice what’s already popular. A pioneer makes popular what needs to be voiced!

Wake up to shake up

At the very core of my purpose is fostering diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Diversity goes so much deeper than creating a happier office; companies are 20 to 35% more effective when they become more inclusive. I’m a big believer that this leads to richer and more industry-changing ideas. Diversity is the mother of creativity!  

However, breaking barriers can be a challenge due to tradition and unconscious bias. At Unilever, we addressed the elephant in the room and implemented training to spot and prevent predispositions that lead to stereotyping.

It’s this mentality which was the breeding ground of campaigns and movements such as Dove’s #RealBeauty and Lynx’s #FindYourMagic.

Every day I wake up with this same purpose in mind, and my determination doesn’t waiver when change comes my way. When you align your actions to your purpose, you won’t go wrong.

Be the change you want to see

Being raised in a developing and emerging country, ambiguity is no stranger to me – I see such change as an opportunity! Thankfully, we’re seeing more and more purposeful people staring into the face of change. This ability to become a master of change is becoming increasingly integral for marketers and while adapting may be costly, refusing to change is even more so.

People with purpose create brands with purpose. They take an idea core to their beliefs, unphased by change, to then execute a positive movement; campaigns which were dreams, thoughts in the shower but were nurtured to breathe and grow to positively impact both society and business.

Aline Santos is the executive vice-president of global marketing at Unilever and a member of Campaign’s Power 100.

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