The Wall Street Journal has a story about Unilever's efforts to move beyond its traditional focus on "taste, spreadability and ingredients," and "push to give each of its 400 brands a social or environmental purpose … The brands-with-purpose strategy has become a centerpiece for Unilever since Alan Jope took over as chief executive in 2019. The Scottish marketeer defines purpose as having a point of view on issues important to the planet or society. He has said the U.K.-based company could sell brands for which it can’t identify a mission."
Which means that Hellmann's mayonnaise now is connected to ending food waste. Knorr is encouraging people to consume more plant-based foods. And the list goes on: "Ice cream brand Wall’s, originally from England, says it is committed to raising national happiness levels … Vaseline petroleum jelly is helping refugees suffering from skin problems. Dove has successfully helped push for laws to prohibit discrimination against people based on their hair texture or style."
While Jope has maintained that "brands with purpose" grow twice as fast as those without, the Journal notes that "Unilever’s share price and sales growth have lagged behind those of rivals Nestle SA, L’Oréal SA and Procter & Gamble Co. in recent years.
Some analysts, investors and former executives say that rather than talking about purpose, Unilever should put greater emphasis on shifting its portfolio toward faster-growing categories and on developing new products."
The Journal writes that "with mounting investor criticism, Mr. Jope has toned down his rhetoric on purpose lately. A person familiar with the CEO’s thinking said that Mr. Jope sees his early rhapsodizing about purpose, without expressly linking the financial benefits, as a mistake."
And, the Journal goes on: "Although Unilever is unusual in applying the purpose strategy across its global portfolio of food, home and personal-care products, many big multinationals are now positioning their brands behind social and environmental issues, hitting on themes such as Black Lives Matter, refugee rights, gender equality, LGBTQ rights and climate change in their ads.
"Companies say taking a stance helps them attract top talent. Workers, especially young ones, increasingly expect their employers to reflect their own values. Consumers can respond, too. Surveys have found that people are increasingly willing to use or drop brands based on a company’s response to calls for racial justice."
- KC's View:
This is an interesting story, especially since it connects to the earlier story about how 43 percent of Gen Z workers "want their companies to be engaged in the social causes they support."
It gets very complicated for companies, especially as the issues on which they're pushed to take stands become ever more polarizing, like access to abortion and reproductive choice, LGBTQ rights, and climate change. Customers and employees may have very different stands on these issues, just as there may be vast differences between how various parts of the country feel about these issues. Cater to one, and you can offend and/or disenfranchise the other. Take no stand, and it can look equally bad.
I'm fond of the John Mellencamp lyric: You have to stand for something, or you'll fall for anything. But then again, he writes and sings songs for a living, and my whole gig is about having opinions. For companies trying to maximize profits, these are much tougher internal discussions.