A Brand's Soft Underbelly

In 1999 Ben & Jerry's, the eco-groovy, socially active, in-your-face, counter-culture ice cream company was booming.  They had expanded internationally from Japan to Holland, and had a reputation as being one of the most reputable companies in the US.  One of the most reputable companies in the US?!?   (A Harris Poll published in that year ranked Ben & Jerry's #5 overall, and #1 in "Social Responsibility" among leading US companies.  The poll measured a company's reputation in areas such as social responsibility, emotional appeal, and innovation  ).  This was a tiny Vermont-based ice cream company founded in 1978 by two college dropouts with beards and weird clothes.  A company literally run out of a garage.  

But they knew how to connect.  And they did it, as the picture shows, by playing their ecogroovy card right on their labels.

So then Unilever buys them in 2000.  And stays pretty hands off in many ways.  Even today, the Ben & Jerry's website is standalone, the style has remained consistent, and the flavours have stayed largely the same.  The biggest change is that my college mainstay in the US - Chunky Monkey - is now available at my small grocery store in Switzerland.  So Unilever got a profitable enterprise, a nice feather in it's sustainability cap, and a whole new audience for it's other products.

When only some of your customers are 'green'
But Unilever also sells Axe.   Targeted to late 20-something boys on the make.  And Ponds, for older women.  And Omo - with it's "dirt is good" campaign .   And of course many, many more brands of products from ice cream to face cream to soup and soap.  Not all of these have a social conscience, nor have many of them had to.   

Until Unilever ran the "Campaign for Real Beauty" - wildly successful in boosting sales seven-fold for Dove.  The campaign and it's ads on YouTube promote 'real beauty' and warn parents to "get to your daughter before the beauty industry does".  And end with the statement: Talk to your daughter before it's too late.  

Which served as the perfect platform for a Greenpeace takeoff which asked the question - How can you stand for real beauty on the back of the ecological havoc wrought by your palm oil suppliers?  And ends saying "Talk to Dove before it's too late".

Going all the way?

As it happens, Unilever is the largest single buyer of palm oil in the world.  Not just because of Dove products, but because they use palm oil in food, creams, and cleaning products...  So they faced the choice:  provide certified palm-oil from sustainably managed plantations to the brands that 'needed' it (to sustain their brand values)?   Or, engage as Unilever, rather than as Dove or Ben & Jerry's, in ensuring that all the palm oil they purchased was responsibly harvested? 

Well, Unilever is a smart company, with a lot to gain from engagement, and relatively little fear.  Years earlier, when they were involved in fishing as the world's largest fisherman, they understood that the world was running out of fish.  Bad for business if your mainstay is fishfingers.  So they founded MSC - the Marine Stewardship Council - a broad collection of stakeholders who came together to find ways to promote sustainable fisheries.  Too slowly for Unilever which got out of fishing.  But the learnings have stayed, and prepared them brilliantly to appeal to a public that increasingly notices and rewards the mission (per the Ben & Jerry's label above).

Going ALL the way
So now if you go to the Unilever website, you find that sustainability and sustainable initiatives are woven throughout their brand stories - from Lipton to Dove to Becel to Knorr... But not just as anecdotes.  They make commitments (e.g. "To purchase all our palm oil from certified sustainable sources by 2015."); they tell you the process (how they engage suppliers and how they work with stakeholders); they describe the actual situation (deforestation, palm oil, and Unilever's role and importance in palm oil purchasing); and they give you progress reports - as well as telling you who is auditing their actions.  They give us all the proof to believe they are working effectively to be a sustainable business.

Does that work?
Well those of you who clicked through to the Greenpeace ad may have noticed the pop-up in the lower left-hand corner which says - You talked to Dove.  Now talk to Nestle.

Which takes us to Nestle and their disastrous reaction to Greenpeace.  
(But that's for another day.)

When you don't connect
For now cast your mind back to the early 90s.  Ecover was a tiny soap company, struggling to establish demand, production and distribution for its ecogroovy products.  Frans Bogaert, the founder,  would give an impassioned speech which he would highlight by eating his detergent on stage.  A riveting demonstration of their safety.  A senior executive from Unilever was asked about whether Ecover didn't pose a threat.  "The day my customers tell me they want to eat my soap, I'll give them soap to eat." he said.  And with that attitude, allowed Ecover to become a global company and dominate the 'green cleaning' market.  

Getting Smart
Unilever learnt:  instead of protecting their soft underbelly by fighting, they disarm their adversaries.  

It worked for Ben & Jerry's.  Apparently, it scales up too.

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