Unilever gives marketers permission to fail

Unilever is shaking up its marcomms strategy to reward employees who take greater risks with campaigns, rather than allowing decisions to be dictated solely by quantitative data.

Unilever is shaking up its marcomms strategy to reward employees who take greater risks with campaigns, rather than allowing their decisions to be dictated solely by quantitative data.

The consumer packaged goods giant has reportedly told its brand teams, along with roster agencies, that it wants to “enable marketers to fail,” instead of making them scared to do so.

Lisa Travatello, global brand and consumer marketing practice chair and creative director at Burson-Marsteller, which has worked with Unilever in the past, says the goal of the directive is likely to inspire its agency partners.

“They see an opportunity to potentially deepen customer relationships because there has been a shift in marketing to connect more strongly with consumers on an emotional level,” she says. “It seems Unilever really wants to bring more creative ideas to the forefront.”

However, the CPG heavyweight will likely not do away with empirical evidence and market research insights entirely, but seek more balance in the creative process, explains Travatello.

“We often see logic overload as a barrier to creative collaboration, which is why they're rallying their brand and agency teams,” she says. “They're likely at the point where they're looking to better manage TMI (too much information).” 

Unilever revealed the strategy shift at a global briefing with its roster agencies, at which the company's chief marketing and communication officer Keith Weed and marketing SVP Marc Mathieu reportedly outlined a 10-year plan to boost creativity in campaigns.

Unilever did not immediately return calls from PRWeek seeking comment on the change in strategy.

Clients' appetite for PR firms to create fresh, outside-the-box thinking is growing, say industry experts.

Ben Therrien, VP of MSL New York's creative group, which counts Unilever rival Procter & Gamble as one of its biggest clients, notes that the hunger for more imaginative work is in demand from brands across industries.

“We're absolutely seeing growth in the appetite for transformative, creative thinking, ranging from CPG and spirits to pharma and finance,” says Therrien. “In many instances, fear is no longer dictating whether great ideas live or die…That creates immense opportunity for agencies and brands that are willing to push the envelope a little.”  

Clients have always feared “pushing the envelope,” in particular worrying about increasing the risk of a campaign falling flat or alienating an important customer segment. Yet brands can overcome that by learning quickly from their miscues, say industry experts.

Todd Defren, principal at Shift Communications, says one way a client can reduce the fear of failure among marketers is to value lessons learned from campaigns that do not work.

“If you screw up, it has been my experience that the audience will forgive and forget as long as you own up to it quickly,” he says. “And as long as you apply those lessons, you'll have an infinitely more powerful marketing engine running than if you try to base everything on moving a needle.”

John McInerney, SVP and director of consumer marketing communications at Ruder Finn, agrees that Unilever's decision should result in a greater culture of risk-taking at the company at large.

“Overall, I think [Unilever's approach] will result in less boardroom debates about whether something will work or not,” he says. “If a company is willing to fail, their people will be a little more courageous and put more [brand] activity in the marketplace.”

Ultimately, should Unilever's shift in marketing philosophy be successful, it could create a domino effect in terms of how other brands make creative decisions, adds McInerney.

“Unilever is the kind of company that will draw a lot of attention to this kind of approach,” he says. “But the proof will be in the pudding. If other marketers see great stuff come from Unilever, they will be very open to adopting a guiding principle that favors creativity.”

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