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'Peace, Love and Ice-Cream:' Why Unilever Stays Purpose-Driven

As we begin a new decade after the tumult of 2020, companies and brands are reflecting on what they learned over the last year, especially as long-standing business practices were disrupted by the pandemic.

At the recent Brand Innovators Kickoff Summit, this topic was explored by Debora Koyama, Unilever’s global growth operations officer, who spoke with Jed Dederik, the head of global client development at The Trade Desk. Here, we share three takeaways from their chat.

Some trends are here to stay post-Covid

During the pandemic, Unilever put together an insights team to identify key trends that emerged, along with recommendations. Koyama highlighted several trends that she believes will stick.

Hygiene awareness: As the virus spread, the search for information around personal hygiene, home hygiene, and public space hygiene (especially restaurants and bars) exploded. The awareness if likely to remain, and that’s a good thing.

At home occasions: As many cities and communities around the world went into lockdown, there was an obvious retreat to at home occasions, meaning everything from cooking at home, to entertaining, to exercising (sales of treadmills surged 127 percent, and stationary bikes by 221 percent, versus the prior year in the six months ending November 2020, according to the NPD Group), to in-house beauty and grooming.

Digital acceleration: Koyama noted “the acceleration of adoption curves across so many sectors or even emerging new trends, like social commerce, livestream commerce, DTC aggregators, and obviously in a broad sense, e-commerce. I don't think that will absolutely go away,” she said.

With these longer-term findings in mind, Koyama said that business models must adjust to this new reality. For instance: Even when consumers return to stores in person, Koyama anticipates they’ll be looking for a different kind of in-store experience, with a focus more on service than shopping. Further, she added, this post-Covid reality may also change the way companies prioritize their portfolio of products.

Purpose should be connected to the company’s DNA

Within the context of the global anxiety caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, people are looking for meaning in every aspect of their lives, and that extends to the brands and companies they prefer. For industry leaders, this means not just paying lip service to being value-driven but integrating it into core business practice.

“What I’ve seen through the years is that purpose must be absolutely connected to the company’s DNA, to be very authentic, genuine,” Koyama said. “It should be part of everything that you do, say, and how you behave as a company.”

Koyama added that it’s critical that brands are consistently communicating with consumers across all channels in a purpose driven way. “There’s data everywhere proving that purpose-led brands and companies will grow faster,” she says.

As an example, Koyama pointed to Ben and Jerry’s, a Unilever brand that has stayed true to its founding principles and summed up in its tagline, “Peace, love, and ice-cream.” A case in point was the company’s recent clear stand against the violent insurrection in Washington D.C. on January 6.

Keeping the human aspect front and center

As many companies continue to operate within this new virtual landscape, keeping employees connected and motivated is vital for a company’s health. That continues to be a preoccupation for Koyama, especially as many locations enter similar conditions again this year. (Koyama was speaking from London, which was back under lockdown). She emphasized the importance of keeping the human aspect in view and “embracing the integration of personal and professional lives for motivating purposes,” as she put it. After the introspection forced on everyone last year, she expressed a desire to be “more externally focused,” bringing in guests and partners into the virtual environment for fresh perspective, to help break up the routine of back-to-back meetings, and to keep colleagues feeling positive.