As a student, my interest in marketing was influenced by listening to a marketing guru at a conference, and later during my interaction with him when I was given an opportunity to work with him as a young manager in the early 1990s.
Siddharth Sen, nicknamed Shunu Sen, was India’s marketing guru for over three decades, responsible for successful brand building at a time when such concepts were relatively unknown in the country.
Through innovative marketing campaigns, he popularised a host of consumer products such as toothpastes, bath soaps and toiletries manufactured by Hindustan Lever, an affiliate of the United Kingdom-based Unilever.
These products are still household names today, decades after they were first launched. Fair & Lovely, Sunsilk, Closeup, Liril and Rin were among the power brands Shunu had been closely associated with.
The writer (third from left) at a Unilever regional marketing course.
He tutored me and an entire generation of Lever managers in what motivates consumers, the mysteries of brand management and how to deal with hidebound advertising agencies.
Shunu believed that love for the consumer was the key to a successful marketing campaign, and began studying and wooing them relentlessly. According to him, all consumers preferred a “winning brand” because it helped build their self-image.
The company DNA
Going back to the DNA of the company I served for more than two decades, Unilever was one of the companies that invented marketing with a different perspective of improving people’s lives – not just marketing for the sake of selling.
Guided by a desire to make the world a better place, this is a company that has purpose built into its DNA. When first elucidating his ideas for the breakthrough brand Sunlight soap in the 1800s, Unilever’s founding father William Hesketh Lever said his mission was:
“…to make cleanliness commonplace; to lessen work for women; to foster health and contribute to personal attractiveness, that life may be more enjoyable and rewarding for the people who use our products.”
Today the very same essence is captured in its corporate purpose.
The Unilever experience
Our purpose is to make sustainable living commonplace. We work to create a better future every day, with brands and services that help people feel good, look good, and get more out of life.
This incredible sense of purpose has been at the heart of my relationship with Unilever. Knowing that you can make a difference to people’s lives, through its brands and their interaction with over two billion consumers a day, is incredibly motivating. It gives me daily inspiration.
When you see Lifebuoy brand stepping up and launching global campaigns to improve the hygiene of one billion people worldwide, you see the extraordinary impact a brand can have. There cannot be a better reason to get out of bed and come to work than that.
I believe that marketing is the best job in the world. Done well, it helps people feel good, look good and get more out of life.
To be a good marketer, you should genuinely love the people you serve. Only then you will be inspired by the right thought, deed and action.
A brand disruptor
I believe in the power of brands to improve people’s lives. I personally have experienced its magic being unlocked. One of the brands that I helped activate across the world is OMO (also known as Persil in Europe, Surf in South Asia, Breeze in Southeast Asia, and Ala in Latin America).
The world of detergent was a low interest category where preference and loyalty were deeply rational, and brands competed on highly rational claims.
Unilever moved away from ‘my molecule is better than your molecule’ strategy. It changed the game by developing a strategy based on a real global universal insight that a child’s development will always be a mother’s first priority. So it’s never about the detergent.
Unilever articulated this distinct anti-category view that ‘stain is an enemy’ to ‘stain is a child’s best friend’. Unilever developed the global platform of “Dirt is Good”.
While every other brand demonised dirt, OMO did the opposite! It immediately gave the brand distinction and differentiation. The idea resonated in developed markets where mothers intuitively understood and saw the value of their children experiencing and learning from dirt.
In developing and emerging markets where clean is good and dirt is bad, dirt suddenly become good when it is purposeful.
The idea extends far beyond traditional advertising and business.
In China, Unilever launched an app giving mothers ideas on how to improve their children’s creativity and physical development. In Indonesia, branded content was developed telling stories behind the stains. In Thailand, Vietnam and Pakistan, children play areas were developed in public parks.
In Africa, Unilever worked with schools to give children access to the school grounds after school hours and organised football coaching lessons. Games carnivals were organised in South Asia, and in Turkey traditional games that were forgotten were revived.
Reaping its fruits
Today OMO speaks the same language in over 80 countries. As a result, it has grown from a 250 mil Euro brand before “Dirt is Good” to over a 4 bil Euro brand in 10 years after “Dirt is Good”. It’s a staggering 1,500% increase in 10 years. It is now the No 1 fabric cleaning brand in the world and Unilever’s biggest brand.
At the crossroads we are today, I really believe that brand marketing has the ability to lead again. It can bring us into a world where we can continue to drive brands, improve products and increase consumption. We must think about giving access to everyone, and not just to the elite. That’s where the growth opportunities are really exciting, especially if you look at markets like Africa.
I would like to see marketing turn noble again. At its inception, if you go back to the Henry Ford or Lever era, marketing is what helped us believe in the possibilities of a better future.
Ford made us believe that a car was not just for the happy few. We have the opportunity to be an enabler in the shifts taking place in the pyramid, even with products as simple as soap.
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