Marc Mathieu: In the digital era, everyone’s a marketer

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Marc Mathieu,
Senior vice president of marketing, Unilever

Last year Unilever, the world’s second-largest advertiser, hired Marc Mathieu to be the company’s number-two marketer. A founder of BeDo, a strategic consulting firm that focuses on corporate sustainability and social responsibility, Mathieu joined Unilever to help achieve the company’s ambitious 2020 Sustainable Living Plan, which aims to double revenue while reducing raw material and water usage associated with the company’s products and other initiatives. Mathieu spoke about his department’s efforts to engage with customers in new ways, increase market share in emerging markets and foster the sustainability message being championed by Unilever’s CEO, Paul Polman.

Your CEO Paul Polman has said that Unilever is in a period of massive change. How does that affect what you do in marketing?

We see three seismic shifts that are fundamentally changing our overall business and the way the marketing function operates. The first is sustainability and the realization that we need to live differently. The second is the explosion of developing and emerging economies and growing urbanization. The third brings the most change: the rising power of digital and social media, in terms of data and in terms of individual empowerment. These shifts will change how marketers and brands engage with people.

How are digital technologies and social media empowering individuals?

Today, everybody wants to be a marketer. You want to tell your friends what they should buy and you want to hear from your friends what you should buy. People trust their peers. They trust their friends to recommend brands. That has created a shift. People are fundamentally in control.

How do you feel about that?

I think that’s a good thing. More and more, it’s consumers doing the branding. They own the brands. Social media gives us the opportunity to have people tell us what they respond to, what they need, what they like and what they don’t respond to. Therefore the design of our communications, our innovations, our programs and our approaches to sustainability and social responsibility are a vital piece of our marketing and brand strategies. We’re getting constant feedback from people. And therefore we need to listen to them in real time. I talk about co-marketing, where we create marketing platforms that allow people to jump in and share with us. They need to care enough and then share with their friends who then add to the conversation.

Unilever has pledged that by 2020, it will have halved its greenhouse gas emissions and water usage throughout the supply chain while improving hygiene for a billion people and delivering safe drinking water to 500 million. That’s clearly ambitious and admirable, but it seems especially bold in an era where any transgression or setback could backfire in social media.

Because of digital, people are able to see what’s actually true—true in terms of the intent of your actions. When it comes to sustainability, more and more people have instantaneous access to how the products and the brands and the people behind the brands are actually contributing, positively or negatively, to sustainability or social impact. Unilever’s sustainable living plan is very transparent. We openly report on an ongoing basis on our progress as well as on where we’re progressing slower than we would want to. That kind of transparency is absolutely critical because it creates a real-time dialogue with people.

So let’s talk about that transparency. Was there any institutional resistance when the company decided to open up its practices to public scrutiny?

It really goes back to our CEO. On day one he decided that we were going to manage this company for the long term and be very public and transparent about it. He’s created that culture, especially when it comes to sustainability. And when I say sustainability, for Unilever we define it as the way our brands and our products affect the environment, how they contribute to the health and well-being of a billion people, and also how they help develop sustainable agriculture and improve the livelihoods of people. So it’s transparency about our products, but also our production process, the whole supply chain. It’s not just about our impact, it’s the impact of manufacturing and the usage of the products we manufacture and sell. It’s not just about the planet, but also the societal and the human impact of our business.

You source your products from hundreds of thousands of farmers and distributors around the world. This pledge—and by extension, your brands—is affected by each of those relationships.

Yes, absolutely. If you take the example of Lipton Tea, we’re making sure that we connect the consumption of sustainable tea to the farming of sustainable tea. As a consumer, I can feel connected to a community of farmers that is the source of the products I buy. So it makes me feel great that my consumption has a positive effect in terms of choosing a better quality product and also that I have a positive impact on the livelihood of a community of farmers at the source. Again it’s about the consumers being in control—they can see how their purchasing decisions can actually improve the world in which they and their children live.

How do you keep abreast of all the changes in social media and the emerging platforms?

One of the things I do regularly is meet with startup companies – not just Facebook and Twitter. A group of us was in China recently to visit some of the leading social media platforms over there. A few months earlier we were at CES [Consumer Electronics Show] to meet the Twitter folks and so on. But I also regularly encourage my teams to meet with startups and venture capitalists. Because I really believe that a lot of the startups are a great early signal for us on new social behaviors. Almost every month, I’m meeting with some startups or VCs that work with startups at Unilever and also non-Unilever ventures. We’re tapping into all of these emerging models. In the past, you didn’t need to pay attention to startups. It was enough to be close to all your agencies. But now innovations are coming from so many different directions and it’s so fast that to remain plugged in, you need to be where innovation is created.

You’ve described yourself as a change agent. Do you have any good advice for how to sell change—whether to consumers or inside an organization?

I always believe that you need to paint a positive picture that shows people where they can go, and one that makes it easy for them to feel they can participate. I believe in the power of creating an empowering picture of success, or a destination, and then bringing people on that journey almost in a co-ownership or co-creation way. When you do this, people feel that they have a role to play and that their contribution is critical. So you need to make it inspiring and desirable and also something that is emotionally and physically rewarding and engaging. By making it rewarding, it eventually becomes a habit. Because it’s easy to change once. I can take a one-minute shower tomorrow morning. But it’s taking a shorter shower every single time and making it a habit that is hard—and it takes a lot of time. This is how we moved from a culture of smoking to a culture of non-smoking. But it’s taken 30 years.

New thinking

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