Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Get with the Weed regime (Marketing Week)

Approaching 100 days into his job as CMO at Unilever, the man Martin Sorrell calls ’visionary’ is already revolutionising the company’s digital, sustainability and communication strategies. MaryLou Costa meets Keith Weed as he maps out the challenges ahead.

Scrutiny of the first 100 days in office doesn’t just apply to the likes of US president Barack Obama. Unilever chief marketing officer Keith Weed is also undergoing his 100-day test, being rigorously assessed not only by his company and department but also by millions of consumers across the world.

“I’m a great believer in the first 100 days in a new job,” reflects Weed, who was appointed in March. “I think you have a certain time to invest in a new job and learn the new landscape. You only get one chance to make a first impression. And you only have one opportunity to look at things with fresh eyes.”

By the end of his first 100 days in his new position, Weed will have completed a baptism of fire – not least because the role of chief marketing officer has evolved to incorporate communications, and an elevated responsibility for the company’s sustainability strategy. Weed is also the first marketer to be appointed to the company’s board.

The Unilever veteran looks remarkably fresh in a sharply cut suit as he eagerly recounts the key events of his first few months: countless calls and meetings to get up to speed on all aspects of the Unilever businesses, visits to North America to meet with the company’s US executives, and an excursion to Silicon Valley and Seattle to meet with the world’s heavyweight technology brands to “explore the mutual agenda we can develop”. And, of course, collecting the Advertiser of the Year gong at the Cannes Lions advertising festival in June, for Unilever’s innovative campaigns such as its Peperami co-creation marketing, which encouraged members of the public to come up with the brand’s next advertising concept.

Weed pushes aside the notion that his packed diary is stretching him too thin. “It has all been completely self-led,” he explains. “The trip to Silicon Valley and Seattle was designed and led by myself, so none of this is accidental.”

Taking a team of Unilever category heads to the American technology hubs to meet with the who’s who of digital innovators – Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, Amazon and Apple – marks the beginning of how the “Weed regime”, as WPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell calls it, will differ from how Unilever operated under previous CMO Simon Clift.

Weed says that the company’s digital marketing budget will double this year to put Unilever at the forefront of the digital world. It is this thinking that prompts Sorrell to describe Weed as “engaging, visionary…an ideal client”.

Another key project to support Unilever’s digital revolution is the partnership with film competition board Mofilm, which Weed announced in April. The deal marks a crowdsourcing drive to generate short commercial films for 13 Unilever brands.

The initiative is designed to attract up-and-coming filmmaking talent. Any content produced will be used in an attempt to create brand buzz and consumer engagement through viral videos.
Consumer desire for such engagement is there, Weed claims, revealing that within a week of the initiative being announced, more than 1,000 briefs were downloaded from would-be filmmakers keen to get involved.

“I know everybody has been talking about this digital revolution but I think it is bigger than even the most stretchy visions suggest,” he predicts. “I want to be able to leverage this fantastic revolution to create real engagement with the people who are buying our products, and allow them to help build our brands.”

Building consumer relationships goes beyond just making short films. The importance of entertaining and useful content is recognised by the company as an essential strategy to attract consumers to Unilever brands; part of a strategy embedded by Weed’s predecessor Clift.

“There is a thirst out there for entertainment and content. I don’t think people are happy to sit back and see the world pass in front of them anymore,” Weed claims. “If you look at five years ago, companies like ours would not have had such rich investments in content.” He points to the Flora brand, which is positioned as “the healthy alternative to butter and lard”, as a success story in this area. “We are sharing knowledge with consumers from the thousands of scientists we have working on cholesterol and heart issues.”

While Weed says working with Mofilm is reflective of how the ad world is moving towards content-driven marketing, he is also excited by technology itself. Unilever is one of the first advertisers to launch content on Apple’s new iAd platform.

The company is even investing in quirky technology, such as its ice cream vending machine that requests a user’s smile when they select an ice cream. The smile is then uploaded to Facebook as part of the transaction process in an attempt to share the emotions of buying an ice cream.

While Sorrell asked Weed during Cannes Lions what proportion of Unilever’s entire marketing budget – £4.8bn last year – would be devoted purely to digital this year, Weed would not divulge this commercial secret. He does say, however, that budget allocations will attempt to reflect consumer behaviour in individual markets.

“In the US, where people are spending 25% of their time in some form of digital engagement, then you would be looking at budgets in that order. We would be down to single figures in less developed markets.

“In terms of media choice, we will pick the balance that reflects the task. So it would be incorrect to suddenly put a huge percentage of money towards digital in markets where online use isn’t very developed.”

Weed believes his digital agenda goes hand in hand with his new communications remit, which he describes as a new way of “joined-up thinking”; where all communications, whether marketing or editorially-based, are driven by the same motivations of transparency and consumer benefit.

It is also why Weed believes the company’s sustainability strategy is best overseen by the marketing department (see Q&A, below). In an era of growing consumer expectations, scrutiny, and scepticism of “greenwashing”, joining up marketing and sustainability makes sense so that the overall strategy can be more efficiently communicated and developed, he claims.

Adding such dimensions to the CMO role naturally demands recognition in the boardroom. While Clift’s role before him was noteworthy for being the company’s first full-time CMO, Weed is fortunate in being able to boast he is the first marketer appointed to the Unilever board – a coup for marketers industry-wide, as they fight for more recognition in their organisations.

Weed claims the move reflects the consumer-centric approach that runs right through the company. “Unilever has some really good momentum right now and [chief executive] Paul Polman wants to see us building on that momentum with consumer demand-led growth.
“Being on the board is recognition of the importance of that,” he adds. “So when we come to making investment or strategic decisions, we can orientate that towards the person who is ultimately in charge – the consumer.”

Polman’s own appointment in January last year caused a stir after he became the first Unilever boss to come from “outside the company”. But Weed insists Polman has fitted in well, and his lengthy history with both Unilever rivals Procter & Gamble and NestlĂ© gives his role a healthy external angle.

Weed claims that Polman has given him a warm welcome to the boardroom and he has quickly learnt the value of having such an ally. “The great news for me is that Paul and I are very aligned in how we see business,” he announced in Cannes. “We have a similar mantra of being consumer centric and seeing the importance of consumer demand-led growth. The Unilever vision is to double our business without increasing our environmental footprint and the only way to achieve that is through consumer demand-led growth. Putting the consumer at the heart of everything we do will drive the business forward. Paul recognises that.”

Weed also made sure during his stay in Cannes to praise the work of his predecessor, possibly to distance himself from any notions of trouble in the marketing department before Clift’s departure: “As far as differences between me and Simon, let me declare my interest. Simon is a really good friend of mine and is the godfather of one of my children. He did a great job in setting up the marketing platform that I have now got. But of course there are still big challenges ahead.”

Those challenges aren’t just about navigating the complex world of digital channels. Being the new man in charge carries a certain pressure, he says. “We have some organisational work and new agenda work going on and what I’m seeing around me is a tremendous appetite for this change.”

“When you have a new leader, there are opportunities to reset the rhythms of a business. If you don’t take that first three or four months to set that new rhythm, then everyone will just settle back into the old one. I, as any new leader is, am interested in stepping up performance – where we are now is great but I want us to be even better.”

As for the successful completion of his first 100 days, Weed will not be one to dwell on the nostalgia of their passing. “My mission is to move quickly, set up the agenda now,” he states. “I’m a man in a hurry with a lot to do. The best thing to do in any race is start how you mean to go on.”

Written by MaryLou Costa

Thursday, 8 July 2010

'We will see India engaging through mobile more than the US' (The Economic Times)

He’s the man in the hot seat, literally as well as figuratively. Literally, because the man injured his back the weekend before the Cannes Lions festival, restricting his movement. So the scheduled meeting with Keith Weed, the global chief marketing and communications officer, Unilever, almost fell through at the last minute until it was finally rescheduled with a slightly curtailed time slot allotted for the conversation. But once the talk began, the back pain was forgotten and it was the enormous responsibility that the man shoulders that became the focal point. Weed has recently taken on the all important marketing role at Unilever from Simon Clift. He comes in at a time when the marketplace is in a state of flux. Unilever may still be in the business of selling consumer goods, but the way to go about this has definitely changed.

A global ad spend of over $7 bn in 2009 makes Unilever the second largest advertiser in the world, after P&G. One of the immediate mandates for Weed is to bring a larger marketing focus at Unilever. And so far, Weed is pleased with the progress. “We have good momentum now. In the last quarter, we had 7 % volume growth. Compared to other consumer goods companies globally, that’s very competitive,” says Weed.

He adds that it’s not only the volume growth but also the volume share growth that the company keeps an eye on. “Volume growth means more people are buying our products and volume share means we are growing competitively with more consumers buying our products compared to competition.”

But while growth is relatively robust, an area that needs a much sharper focus at Unilever is digital. Weed says that he took a team of Unilever’s top managers: Category executive VPs from tea, laundry and haircare globally to Silicon Valley in May this year. “I went a day earlier and met venture capitalists like Sequoia Capital and Phoenix Ventures. Then the team came and we met players like Yahoo! and Google. These are players with whom we have a good working relationship,” he states. But what Unilever was looking at through such meetings is a step up, to acquire a true leading edge in the area of digital, says Weed. Engaging with companies at Silicon Valley, he says, “not only gave insights and the opportunities, but also a perspective on the massive shift that’s currently taking place.

And Weed is spending time with the agencies and partners whom he expects to also provide the digital edge in communications. Be it via ‘Share Happy’, a face recognition driven ice cream vending machine or the first ad on iPhone called iAd. Even as Unilever has a roster of agencies, including digital, the question is wouldn’t he want existing agencies to acquire the digital competence rather than have a separate outfit meeting the requirement? “Of course, at the end of the day, I would like our agencies to give us anything we need in the communication space,” he says. “And they will, because that’s their objective as well as ours.” He cites a recent example of one of Unilever’s core agency losing a pitch in the digital area for one of the brands. They were complaining about it, he says. “I told them, if you are mad, I am furious because you have made my life more difficult. Not only do I have to work with you, but now I have to handle the digital agency,” he says. “But we are clear that we want the best and we will work with the best as we have high standards,” he adds. Weed says that he’s driving the business to even higher levels of excellence and if it means working with different agencies, traditional or digital, so be it.

But the expectation from agencies comes as Unilever recently undertook a crowd sourcing experiment. So are agencies in the line of fire with such an initiative? No, says Weed. “We are in the midst of a digital revolution and I see it much bigger than what we perceive it to be,” he states. So when it comes to paid, earned and owned media, Weed says Unilever has a lot of experience. Even in owned media, with and, he says the company has acquired a lot of content through years of research. In the earned media space, particularly in the social media space, consumers are interested in engaging and one way of engaging is getting them to contribute. “So crowd sourcing allows engagement and also gives us access to a whole lot of content,” he says. He adds that some tests have been done based on the content that has emerged on the Surf Excel brand in India and the quality and creativity of the films is impressive. “I don’t see it as a threat or an alternative to agencies. I see it as a source of enriching the agencies, a new way to engage with consumers and a new way to market.”

And innovation targeted at consumers is of critical importance for Weed and Unilever. He says Lord Leverhulme in 1800s may have used phrases like ‘making cleanliness common place’ or ‘to lessen the burden of women’ and they may sound old fashioned but have relevance even today. Weed talks about an innovation in India that Unilever is bringing in for Rin that highlights visible whiteness. “Of course, what’s behind it is great amount of science and patents that we have defended in courts against competition and pushed competitors away. These innovations give us the advantage over competition.”

Weed says markets like India and China are not developing markets but fast-growing dynamic markets. And one needs to segment markets like India and China to understand the opportunities. “India has 500 million mobile users. Right now, globally there 1.4 bn people using the net and 4 billion mobile phones globally, half a billion from India. So clearly, the next billon online users will come from the mobile markets.” So there are real opportunities of using digital in emerging markets, he says. “While we might not have high internet penetration in India compared to the US, where 25% of media time is spent online, mobile will unlock that. We will see India engaging through mobile more than the US,” he adds. Rest assured Weed will ensure Unilever is ready to ride the wave.

Written by Rajiv Banerjee, ET Bureau