A lesson from Unilever: We need to redefine the term ‘consumer’

Brand activism is about actions, not just words. While brands must lead the charge, Unilever’s Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, Aline Santos, advises that they also work with consumers as peers and collaborators to become a collective force that can change culture together.

By Aline Santos

EVP Global Marketing and Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, Unilever

If ‘Purpose’ was the buzzword of 2019, I predict ‘Brand Activism’ will be the most uttered phrase in 2020 (just after ‘TikTok Influencers’). The events of this year have brought into sharp focus, not only the need for brands to have a clear and authentic purpose, but to act with intent on that promise. There’s nothing like a crisis to put a brand’s purpose and values to the test and while we’ve seen some amazing examples of purpose in action, we’ve also seen brands failing to live up to the values they preach. At Unilever, we have long believed that by standing for something bigger than the products we sell; by tapping into our audience’s beliefs; and by taking decisive action to help solve society’s ills, we can connect with consumers on a deeper level.

Never has this philosophy been more important. If we take a quick look at the world around us, what do we see? Divisive politics, rising inequality and discrimination, climate change – it’s no longer enough to simply support or align with an issue. People expect brands to step in to fill the void left by other institutions. In the recent findings from the Edelman Trust Barometer, 85% of respondents want brands to ‘solve my problems’, while 80% want brands to ‘solve society’s problems’.

Divisive politics, rising inequality and discrimination, climate change – it’s no longer enough to simply support or align with an issue. People expect brands to step in to fill the void left by other institutions.

Furthermore, the audiences we’re trying to connect with are taking decisive action – they’re voting with their wallets, they’re taking to the streets and they’re chanting: “we must do better!”. This new level of consumer activism is the absolute reality for brands. The opportunity for business lies at the heart of this activism by aligning a brand’s purpose and values to the cultural discourse. To build more authentic and meaningful relationships, brands should engage with an influential set of consumers and work hand-in-hand to drive systemic change and make the world a better place. Think about it: brands have reach, scale, messaging power. If we meet consumers at the heart of culture and work together, we can create emotional connections like never before. This participatory energy will usher in the next era of consumer engagement. But for this to be successful, we will need to put the traditional view of “consumer just as a buyer” to bed forever. In this new era, consumers will become peers, collaborators and an extension of our brand purpose. Together, we will not just be part of culture but will be the collective force that can change culture. Brands can then use this work to reach a broader audience with more meaningful and purpose-led messages.

An example I’m proud of is from Dove Men+Care. The brand is committed to addressing outdated stereotypes around masculinity by celebrating the caring side of men. More recently, it has been driving action around an issue that inhibits men’s ability to care – paternity leave. Dads want to be more involved with their kids, but fewer than half of the world's countries offer paid paternity leave, so Dove Men+Care launched the Pledge for Paternity Leave to empower dads worldwide.

In the US, we have built a community of ‘Dadvocates’ – comprised of dads and allies – to convince the US Congress to pass comprehensive paid family leave policy. The most passionate signatories have come together in a private Facebook Group called “Advocates for Paternity Leave” where we collectively discuss important actions that Dadvocates can take on their own.

Of course, this approach only works if brands have an authentic purpose and are walking the talk. In the case of Dove Men+Care, we launched our own Global Paternity Leave Standard for Unilever employees, which gives all fathers a minimum of three weeks' paid leave. Only with this policy in place, do we earn the right to invite others to participate and co-opt a movement.