By  on May 24, 2013

For companies that want to win in today’s competitive and volatile world, being number one is no longer enough.

Gina Boswell, executive vice president of personal care, North America, at Unilever, delivered an in-depth analysis of how companies must rise to the challenges of an increasingly complex and chaotic world and, in the process, rewrite the rules of success and create a new dimension of consumer connections.

“There used to be a very narrow definition of success, which was being number one, no matter what the cost,” said Boswell. “It’s our belief that that model doesn’t work in today’s world. There are too many companies that have prospered at the expense of social, environmental and economic implications. Businesses have to learn to be successful while contributing to society and supporting ecosystems and biodiversity and livelihoods. It is way bigger than sustainability in the classical sense of the word.”

Unilever has put sustainability at the core of its business model and adopted an operating model that decouples financial performance from environmental performance. Called the “plan for sustainable living,” Unilever has created three main goals: to halve its environmental footprint while doubling the size of the business; to help one billion people worldwide improve their health and well-being, and to sustainably source 100 percent of its agricultural raw materials by 2020.

The concept of “purpose-driven brands” serves as the backbone of the plan. “Purpose-driven brands resonate and provide stability as the ultimate embedding of social consciousness inside the brands,” Boswell said. “Consumers are demanding to know the company behind the products — who they are, what they stand for and the purpose they serve other than a capitalistic one.”

That is because the relationship of a consumer and brand has fundamentally changed, said Boswell, as a result of the digital revolution and the unsettling times in which we live.

“The increasing complexity of the world can create an incredible feeling of disempowerment and overwhelming anxiety,” Boswell said. “It’s always been imperative that businesses create value. It’s now even more critical that we create value for the communities where we operate….Many people look to brands for a sense of comfort and reliability and stability and trust in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world.”

But out of such chaos comes opportunity said Boswell, particularly when you listen to consumers. “This is giving us the opportunity to empower consumers to own our brands and adopt our brands,” said the executive, who showed a clip of Dove’s recent Real Beauty Sketches spot.

The video has become the most watched clip ever on the Internet, and shows police artist Gil Zamora creating composite portraits of seven women based on their self descriptions and the descriptions of others. “Some people say, ‘What does this have to do with selling soap?’” Boswell recounted. “But we have actionable insight. In this case, it was that only 4 percent of adult women think they are beautiful, which is deplorable. We also learned that this is a universal truth.” Boswell continued, “This is now in 25 languages. A universal truth is the best basis for any kind of brand campaign, so we were able to unlock that.”

In summary, Boswell noted that the very nature of marketing is changing. “We have a unique opportunity to reinvent and revive marketing post-sustainability, post-developing and emerging markets and post-digital,” she said. “We need a new model that feels human and puts people and improving their lives first.

“In this new era, it means recognizing that there are no other alternatives to empowering people and inviting them to our own brands,” she concluded. “We must help people tell their brand stories rather than simply listening to ours.”

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