of life sustains
Social responsibility initiatives
link with commercial benefit
Priya Nair joined Hindustan Unilever Consumer Insights Team in 1995, and she is currently handling the company’s Home Care division. Her portfolio includes brands for household cleaning and water purification that are positioned to improve lives and address social problems.
What stands out among the many ways the Indian market changed recently?
There has been an incredible growth in terms of choice both for consumers and marketeers. Creating brand value in this context requires brands to be distinctive and meaningful.
How are the brands you represent affected by greater choice, especially the appearance of stronger local Indian brands?
The challenge here is really about understanding consumers. The big opportunity is to understand how their needs are changing with time. Any brand, regardless of origin, can be successful if it understands what consumers want. It’s about how we talk to the local consumer in a local market. An organization like Hindustan Unilever is well placed to read these local needs. Our brands are entrenched in communities, so it’s about tapping into the locally relevant needs and understanding them.
How do you achieve brand relevance?
All brands seek to create relevance for themselves in the lives of consumers. For example, one of India’s challenges is the scarcity of water. Detergent brands consume a significant amount of water. This is an opportunity for brands to take responsibility and create relevant products. If you can create products that consume less water while delivering the same efficacy, you’re super relevant in the life of consumers. We’ve done this with Rin, one of our detergent brands. We’ve created technologies that save water while giving consumers clean, bright clothes. We also have water purification devices under the brand Pureit. This is the intersection of relevant products and social responsibility. It’s great for the brand. It’s great for consumers.
In what ways do you link brand relevance with social responsibility?
Water scarcity leads to more complex societal implications. One of the challenges with water collection is that it prevents girls from going to school. They become the water collectors of the household. We addressed this issue in the Rin campaign. Brands need to create the conversation since people are desensitized to many of these issues. This fits into the larger positioning of the Rin brand, which is to help people shine in life, to help them in their journey. Water collection is one challenge that inhibits progress.
Another challenge is landing a job. Often jobs in India require English language skill. We’ve created career academies where people can learn English and gain the soft skills and personal appearance advice they need to land a job. We have reached almost 420,000people with our physical and virtual career academy. There are many things a brand can do. It’s not just about advertising. It’s about the enablers that the brand provides to help people progress and get ahead.
But the brand is also a business. How does the good work result in a commercial benefit?
These are branded activities. The learning institution is called the Rin Career Academy. We don’t find it at cross purposes to do the right thing and build a brand because these are sustainable business activities that work for the brand and work for the community.
Is this social responsibility focus part of a larger Unilever attitude about brand purpose?
It is part of the company’s philosophy. It is a belief in why the company exists and why consumers choose one brand over another. The philosophy is saying that products and brands are made up of more than just physical attributes. The purpose of the product is much larger than just cleaning clothes. And that purpose influences what brand the consumer chooses.
How do you identify a purpose and keep it relevant over time?
With our Surf Excel detergent, we established the “Dirt is Good” campaign over a decade ago. The philosophy is that if kids get dirty in the act of doing good, then dirt is good. It’s how they engage with life and learn from experience. To express “Dirt is Good” over time we’ve used different campaign ideas. One of our consistent themes has been how we teach values to children through their experiences playing and getting dirty. An area we found important was learning from failure, learning not to be overwhelmed by failure but instead converting it into an important experience. This idea of failure is a huge issue in an achievement-oriented society like India. When a brand takes on these strongly-held beliefs it creates a relevant conversation.
How does an idea like this come about?
These kinds of ideas come from a lot of work we do with consumers and our involvement with academicians and other experts. This particular insight about the pressure on children to succeed came from the parenting tensions we were hearing about in our qualitative, ethnographic work with consumers. In a society of 1.3 billion people, individuals are striving to get ahead. In this context, parents, with the best intentions, can push children too hard to succeed. That can be negative. All children fail sometimes. The same child is likely to fail many times before he or she succeeds. The point of the campaign is to make these inevitable failures moments of learning instead of moments of tension.
What are the boundaries for the brand expressing a purpose? What about topics that are controversial or politically sensitive?
The point is to create an authentic space from which a brand can speak. At Unilever, we inevitably come back to spaces where we create better quality of life. If a brand chooses to go to a space that is more controversial, I think the question is whether the brand can authentically own that space. And whether the product category is authentically linked to that space.
In this skeptical age, how do you create and sustain trust in a brand?
Trust is incredibly important, and it is about the promise you make to a consumer. And the consumer assumes your product meets that promise every time he or she buys it. Brands are like promises to consumers. I would argue that in India consumer confidence in companies and brands is high. It may be tied to a general sense of optimism in a growing country.
To be trusted, do brands need to address consumers differently according to their age?
When we classify people as millennial or older people, their differences are not so much related to age, but rather levels of awareness and the experiences that people of different generations hold. If I look at the millennials, they do not take brands at face value, and brands have to do what they promise. It is again about being authentic, exactly who you say you are in every form and format of the brand. That works well with all customers, and especially with millennials.
How do you communicate these principles?
Nowadays brands have the ability to engage on digital media, whereas in the past, the only choice brands had was to broadcast their messages to consumers. But as I said, both consumers and brands have more choices today. There is a choice to have a conversation with consumers about who they are and what they’re about. Brands that do that well and make the choice to have two-way conversations and allow consumers to give feedback, are the brands consumers love and respect.
In the examples of Rin and Surf Excel, how do you communicate beyond the branded initiatives, in media?
Rin Career Academy is available on a mobile phone, so the consumer can access content about learning English or how to dress for an interview and so on. It is an incredibly different conversation compared with a traditional branded conversation that would happen, which would be about how Rin makes clothes brighter.
Are you able to focus less on functionality and more on purpose because you have such established brands?
Yes. These are categories that are highly penetrated. These are brands that are well-established. Premiumization is relevant in our categories. The real drivers are around giving consumers more benefits. That’s a key part of driving value for the category and for consumers. For example, in the laundry category, fabric conditioner penetration is still fairly low in India. With that product one can create new benefits and premiumize the category. And you create value for customers in what they get as an outcome from their clothes washing.
Is premiumization an urban phenomenon in India, or do you see it throughout India?
Premiumization is not just about the metros. This is a country where everyone is aspiring. That is a fundamental truth of India. The country is moving forward and premiumization is part of moving forward and helping consumers improve their quality of life.