[Marketingfacts] Why we don’t get purpose marketing sold

Published in Marketingfacts 19-08-2020, written by Marc van Eck

Marketeers must not only be able to come up with beautiful brands with a great purpose, they must also be able to market them at a fair price. Only when these types of brands become market leaders will marketeers make a real contribution. Unfortunately, we are not that far yet.

“Het Grote gevecht, en het eenzame gelijk van Paul Polman”, received from my brother Jeroen, was my inspiration book last holiday. Jeroen Smit has again written a beautiful and impressive book. I think it may be a bit thinner and less factual, but that obviously proves Smit’s journalistic background. Beautiful work and very recognizable. At the time of the famous Omo Power affair, I worked as a marketeer at Procter & Gamble and my brother Jeroen worked for many years as a marketeer at the competitor Unilever. It is special that Jeroen Smit is able to reveal so many details.

Purpose of Unilever

The book gives food for thought, about Unilever, about Polman, about administrators, about financiers, about communication professionals and for me especially about marketeers. It was also clear to me before reading the book that it was a fight for Polman. That he was lonely in his struggle became clear as we read the book. Partly because of his courage to go against the grain, but also partly because of his solo approach.

It is a pity that he was not able to get the whole Unilever organization on board, and as far as I am concerned, the marketeers in particular. The marketeers have failed to properly market sustainability, the purpose of Unilever, so that consumers are prepared to pay the right price for it. Before the summer, I wrote in “Adformatie” that we marketeers should stop with the profession if we fail to successfully realize and market the wonderful ‘purposes’ of our brands. After reading the book, I’m afraid this moment is closer than I feared.

Does Polman deserve praise? Sure. As CEO he really tried to make Unilever a better company that contributes to a better world. Sure, he has slipped up in some parts, but in his last stint as CEO, he’s gotten much more negative publicity than he deserved. Fortunately, my image of Polman has been revised positively after reading the book.

What made me think while reading was that the providers of capital in all shapes and sizes are indeed only concerned with realizing as much profit as possible in the short term and are not concerned at all about the effect of this on others and especially the survival of our planet. The book also shows that management within Unilever, before Polman, during Polman, and after Polman, makes very arbitrary choices, based more on personal taste and beliefs than on a truly long-term vision for the company.

Lipton tea

Polman himself also made these kinds of choices. Deeply committed to the planet and sustainability, especially poverty and inequality, but remarkably little regard for the suffocating effect of plastic on our world, in which Unilever has a large share. I miss a clear Unilever wide strategic direction that successive directors and managers can give substance to.

In this context, it is of course fascinating that Unilever first decides to locate its head office in the Netherlands and a few years later it just as easily decides to do so in England, the country in which the legislator focuses on the financial shareholder without an eye for the planet. Something that I think Polman rightly detested. Likewise, Polman attempted in particular to improve conditions for tea farmers and pickers with Lipton and that Unilever, just as I was reading this book, announced that it was going to sell Lipton. I wonder where the strategic direction is.

Great job

Polman has, of course, done a great job by abolition of the quarterly financial updates and setting sustainable goals for Unilever and putting them above the financial results. What strikes me the most is that marketing has contributed so little to the successful achievement of these sustainability ambitions. The success lies more in bringing hygiene to poor and developing countries, trying to make the purchasing of palm oil more sustainable, reducing CO2 emissions from operations and creating prosperity for poor small farmers and pickers, in particular in the tea world. Very strange that Unilever’s brands have seen little success in marketing sustainability and that Polman apparently paid little attention here.

A marketing company like Unilever should take the lead here. In my opinion, the most ‘sustainable’ sustainability would be if marketeers ensure that consumers consciously choose sustainable brands and therefore also pay the premium for this. Then consume a little less, but make sure that you and the next generation benefit from it. Several sustainable initiatives, such as smaller concentrated packaging, within Unilever, failed, because marketing to the consumer was unsuccessful. The truly sustainable Unilever brands, such as Ben & Jerry’s and the Vegetarian Butcher, have been acquired. Unilever’s marketeers are apparently unable to create sustainable brands by making them more sustainable and convince consumers. And unfortunately, almost all marketeers outside of Unilever cannot do this either. Me neither.

Picked on steep slopes

About twelve years ago I started a sustainable coffee brand, Medellín Secret. From a plantation in the natural habitat in Colombia, where the steep slopes require hand-picking and where we pay the farmer a fair price directly, much higher than the world coffee market price. Unlike the cultivated plantations in lower situated regions, where machine harvesting is done in places where previously possible rainforest used to be. This benefits both the taste, the farmer, the picker and the environment, but the cost price is considerably higher. Probably more than twice that. We got our brand on the shelves of Albert Heijn, settled for a very low margin, but did not get the rotation in order, because the consumer was not convinced enough to pay the 6.49 euros for 250 gr of coffee beans. When I saw last week that my mother-in-law had bought a kilo of DE coffee beans for around 8.50 euros, I knew that as a marketeer I had failed.

Social brand Koeckebackers

I am also a co-shareholder of social brand Koeckebackers, which helped people with a disadvantage in the labor market actively participating in our society again coaching, guidance and making cookies. Wonderful brand. We are hugged to death on social media, but on the shelves at Jumbo and Albert Heijn we cannot get the necessary rotation for 2.99 euros.

Our cost price is again considerably more expensive due to the manually intensive production and honest ingredients instead of mass production from the machine of ordinary biscuits. So we lowered the price to 2.49 euros, below the cost price, to get the brand moving and thus also to lower the cost price in the long run. Again a marketeer’s failure

Yes, I know that Tony’s Chocolonely has succeeded and I am very happy with that and I wholeheartedly compliment Henk Jan Beltman and his team. But let’s be honest, there are far too few Tony’s and there are far too many (beautiful) sustainable initiatives that remain small and niche. And so, we believe that legislation should be amended, that we should pay for the depletion of our planet, that exploitation should be tackled.

Of course, I agree, but for us marketeers that is a weakness. We must not only be able to come up with beautiful brands with an even better purpose, but we must also be able to market these brands at a fair price appropriate to a higher cost price associated with sustainable entrepreneurship. Only when we succeed in making these brands market leaders, we as marketeers make a real change. Unilever’s marketeers cannot and I have not yet succeeded. I hope that there are marketeers out there who can do it and that we mainly teach and help each other to master it. It’s now or never for marketing!