LONDON — “What is the purpose of digital?”

That was the question posed by Steve Miles, senior vice president of marketing at Dove. For his presentation, he shared three concepts that he has learned in his six years at the Unilever brand. Outlining the scale of the Dove brand, he said that it is sold in 140 countries and makes the world’s number-one cleansing bar, shower product and deodorant.

Recalling a 2006 brand film called “Evolution” that was posted on YouTube — which was “at that time a very new, rather obscure video-sharing site” — Miles said that a week later the video had “gone viral” and reached over 70 million views, a “revelatory” exercise that prompted commentators to call the film a “fantastic example of digital marketing.”

Yet Miles said he has a “real problem” with the phrase “digital marketing,” calling it “dangerous” because “implicit in that phrase is a ghettoization of digital — something that separates it, something that makes it the preserve of specialists. And I don’t believe that’s true.”

“If I have one plea for you all it would be this: Every time you see the phrase ‘digital marketing’, please mentally erase it and replace it with the phrase ‘marketing in the digital age,'” he said. “Many people say, digital has changed everything, I couldn’t disagree more. I think digital has changed nothing when it comes to the fundamental things.”

Acceding that, in this digital age, there are new skills to be learned and channels to understand, he said that “if Dove is good at digital, what makes it good there is exactly the same as what makes it good anywhere; it’s the fundamentals of marketing:” Namely, clear brand positioning, compelling communications and products superior to its competitors. If a brand doesn’t have those basics, “there’s no amount of immersion in clever digital skills that will keep you in business long-term,” Miles said.

His first concept was a warning to not “let digital be just about the digits.” He said that it’s vital for brands to go beyond data and get personal and emotional.

“The measurability of digital is both a blessing and a curse,” he said, warning that data can lead brands to the wrong conclusions because it can be too simplistic. As an example of his favorite business value — “you get what you measure” — he showed a picture of a kitten and said that while engagement is an obvious goal for brands in social media, it should not be the only KPI, to the exclusion of others.

“If you empower people to publish locally in a large multinational brand, and if not all of them are fully up to speed with what you are trying to do in digital, you will end up knee-deep in kittens and babies and puppies,” he said. “Because everybody loves these things; everybody loves sharing them. You will have sky-high engagement scores. What you won’t have is anything that is building your brand or your business.”

He said that marketing jargon, terms like “targeting” women, “capturing” interest and “extracting” data, can dehumanize consumers. “This reduction of [consumers] to bytes of data, it’s terrible; it’s not what consumers want from brands,” he said, flashing a quote from Einstein on the screen that said: “Not everything that matters can be measured.”

Playfully underlining this point, he said that when colleagues push him to give a return on investment figure for a Twitter follower, he said that he asks them whether they had selected their life partner after rating the available candidates, scoring them on various attributes, and running the results through an algorithm. “Or I ask them, ‘What’s the ROI on having children?’ Because the cost of having children is really high and of course you wouldn’t have made such a huge personal investment unless you were certain of the financial return that would accrue from that,” he said.

Secondly, he said that brands have a duty to “fight back against the dark side.”

Despite the advancements and benefits that have come with the digital revolution, it has “had bad consequences that need to be controlled.” He said he is angered by the potential of digital to lead to “massively increased misery” through social anxiety created on social media.

After playing a video that showed YouTube videos of young girls asking Internet viewers to tell them whether they were ugly, he said that Dove chooses to push back against such harmful online trends by using digital as a force for good. Dove also runs offline self-esteem workshops for girls aged between eight and 15 in 60 countries that have reached over 15 million young people.

His last point was that “the world needs and wants brands with a purpose” and marketers who are also citizens. As an example, he spoke about Lifebuoy, a soap brand also owned by Unilever, highlighting its campaign in developing countries to educate children to wash their hands with soap to prevent deaths caused by diarrhea.

But it’s not all philanthropy. “Unilever is a business. We haven’t quietly decided to become a non-profit organization,” he stressed. “And Dove is one of the fastest-growing brands at Unilever.”

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