Unilever’s corporate challenge: make a positive contribution or perish

Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, encouraging women to love themselves for who they are, is embedded in all the company's campaigns and messaging.

Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, encouraging women to love themselves for who they are, is embedded in all the company’s campaigns and messaging.

In the 1890s, Lord Lever, founder of Lever Brothers, wrote down his idea for Sunlight Soap — a revolutionary new product that would help keep England clean. His mission was to make cleanliness commonplace, so that people maintained better health, women had less work and in turn, life could be more enjoyable. His desire to make money while improving people’s lives translated into uncommon acts for a wealthy businessman in the late 19th century, namely: improving working conditions, promoting better hygiene, and helping reduce infant mortality rates.

These ideas and values are still at the heart of Unilever 120 years later. In a recent interview, John LeBoutillier, president and chief executive of Unilever Canada, stressed that Lord Lever is alive and well and continues to roam the halls at the company’s offices.

“Authentic purpose” is at the core of Unilever’s DNA and permeates into all its brands, he said. It’s critical to the future of its business both from a moral and profit perspective.

This belief is guided by the realities of an unsustainable world: We use 1.5 times the world’s resource capacity, a billion people go to bed hungry every day, the richest 85 people have the same wealth as the bottom 2.5 billion, and the list goes on, Unilever’s global chief executive Paul Polman recently told the McKinsey Quarterly.

But he goes a step further, arguing that it is a competitive imperative for all companies to gear their business model toward sustainability on both the environmental and social front if they want to succeed in the 21st century. Simply put, sustainability is good for business.

To be clear, what’s being articulated is not charity. Rather, it’s defined and measurable social impact that businesses can enable. As Polman stated in the McKinsey Quarterly:

…if you want to exist as a company in the future, you have to make a positive contribution.

We have a unique opportunity to create a world that can eradicate poverty in a more sustainable and equitable way. That is very motivational. Business needs to be part of it. Corporate social responsibility and philanthropy are very important, and I certainly don’t want to belittle them. But if you want to exist as a company in the future, you have to go beyond that. You actually have to make a positive contribution. Business needs to step up to the plate.”

And for those who don’t embed purpose into their companies, at best these companies will underperform and at worst, they will perish, LeBoutillier says.

It may seem strange to be showcasing a global company whose products are used by two billion people daily in the Entrepreneur section of the Financial Post. But consider how entrepreneurial they’ve been in forging new ground and leading the profitable good agenda for companies big and small.

Unilever formalized its agenda in 2012 with the launch of its Sustainable Living Plan, promising to double the company’s size while reducing its environmental footprint and meeting various sustainability and social impact goals by 2020. The company’s goals include helping more than a billion people improve their health and hygiene, halving the greenhouse gas impact of its products across their lifecycle, sourcing 100% of its agricultural raw materials sustainably, empowering five million women and advancing human rights across its operations and supply chain.

Under Polman’s global leadership the company has eliminated quarterly reports, reduced short-term thinking, launched a venture fund, invested in early stage companies and, thanks to a recently announced initiative it calls Foundry, it has engaged with technology innovators by offering mentorship and pilot projects with its brands and investment dollars.

The results speak for themselves. On the sustainability front Unilever is a leader. In Globescan and Sustainability’s annual Sustainability Leadership Survey Unilever has a 22-point margin lead over  competitors such as Patagonia, Nestlé, Walmart, Nike, GE, Coca-Cola, Ikea and Marks & Spencer.

Unlike many companies that are driving a sustainability agenda on their environmental footprint, Unilever is doing it equally on the social/community side of the equation with big results.

If this doesn’t seem like a big deal consider this: Most companies embrace sustainability as an environmental imperative that can also save them money — reuse your hotel towels anyone? But, when it comes to social impact they default to the same old charity mindset that divorces “doing good” from “doing well” opting instead for “feeling good.” The result is limited social impact.

Here’s a look at how Unilever is doing in embedding purpose into all its brands:

Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, encouraging women to love themselves for who they are, is embedded in all the company’s campaigns and messaging. Its Self-Esteem Fund and Project has reached more than 1.5 million Canadian girls with workshops and online resources, not to mention the 80+ million YouTube views of Dove’s marketing campaign.

Becel’s Improving Heart Health is at the core of the brand, supporting Heart & Stroke’s Heart Truth campaign and Ride for Heart. It is also the leading margarine brand in Canada.

Ben & Jerry’s, the iconic ice cream brand with a conscience, has social justice (its Hubby Hubby flavour promotes gay rights, for example) and environmental change embedded right into its DNA.

And, finally, Lifebuoy  soap — a hand hygiene product — has built its entire brand around preventing the death of about two million children before the age of five due to diarrhea and pneumonia by promoting hand washing.

Pushing the envelope as a sustainable profit and purpose company is what makes Unilever unique. Sure, more can be done but Axe’s latest Peace brand ad campaign is a continued step in the right direction. And as LeBoutillier says, integrating purpose into all Unilever’s brands is a work in progress and the company is in it for the long haul.

Do you know a company that’s effectively pursuing profit and purpose? Send me your thoughts phillip@publicinc.com. We are looking to showcase companies that have embed purpose into their DNA to create true scalable social impact.

This article was originally published in the National Post
Phillip Haid is co-founder and chief executive of PUBLIC, a cause marketing agency and innovation lab designed to create large-scale social impact through the merger of profit and purpose. You can follow Phillip on twitter by clicking here @philhaid