Is Unilever on The Right Track with its “Brands with Purpose” Strategy?

Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, has pushed each of its 400 brands to have a social or environmental purpose. As its stock price growth has trailed other consumer product companies like P&G and Nestle, Wall Street analysts have questioned Unilever’s focus on “purpose” versus things like innovation and cost management makes any sense.

In my book “Branding Between the Ears” (McGraw Hill 2022), I warn marketers against taking advice on how to manage their brands from PE firms … and you could Wall Street analysts to that list. And, yet, we do have to question if all brands can have a purpose and what is the right way to architect a brand with purpose.

Mr. Jope is on to something here and should hold his ground. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article[1], he has gone so far as to say that Unilever may sell brands for which it can’t identify a mission. That is visionary … but is it right?

Under pressure from the analysts, he has toned down the rhetoric a bit “It (purpose for brands) is the icing on the cake … (but not) a substitute for having fantastic quality, innovation, advertising and distribution.” While I don’t take issue with the latter (what consumer business doesn’t need those?), I do think “Brands with Purpose” as a strategy is the cake itself, not the icing.

Without strong brands, nothing else matters.

In my book, in the chapter “Brands with Purpose,” I offer three principles that marketers of such brands must follow to be successful:

(1) Support what your brand is about

(2) Do what your customers can’t

(3) Be authentic

With its “Real Beauty” campaign for Dove, Unilever practically wrote the book on “Brands with Purpose.” In its research in the early 2000’s the company discovered that women often felt ashamed of their own bodies when they saw perfect and unreachable models featured on ad campaigns. This led Dove to put real women of different ages, weights, color, races and body shapes front and center on its ads. Women all over the world responded enthusiastically and Dove became one of the top brands in Unilever’s portfolio.

The “Real Beauty” campaign was on brand, as we marketers like to say. Dove was a body wash that had an impact on women’s skin texture and impacted how they looked. More importantly, the angst around their own bodies, was something very commonly felt by most women. So, on both counts, the campaign strategy was “on brand,” which is the first principle of architecting brands with purpose. Unilever was also using its financial muscle to promote constructive attitudes around body positiveness, something that consumers could not do on their own. That is principle two. Finally, the campaign came across as authentic with real commitment from the leaders of the company. That’s principle three and brand trifecta.

Yet, the same strategy fell flat on its face when Unilever attempted to slap it on to its deodorant “Axe” for men. That brand had relied on sexually charged ads that featured women wowed by the “Axe Effect.” Inspired by the Dove success, Unilever decided to play down the machismo and do ads that informed people that it was okay for men to be skinny or depressed. Sales dutifully declined.

But why?

Well, the simple answer is that the campaign was not on brand. The angst that the Dove using women felt about their own bodies was widespread. Some men may relate to that as well, but clearly not as many. Hence, Axe had moved to a campaign that was of relevance to a small proportion of its target audience and in the process lost the majority. That violates principle number one of brands with purpose. You must be on brand — both preserve the essence or DNA of the brand and serve the core customer base.

“Brands with Purpose” are not the same thing as “Brands with Values” and Unilever needs to be careful to not mix up the two. Brands with purpose align themselves to certain causes that promote social or environmental well-being of humanity. It is a far superior way to align corporate giving than writing checks to hundreds of charities or umbrella organizations like United Way disconnected with your brand.

“Brands with Values,” on the other hand, are those where the marketers say that they share the same values as their consumers around what is morally right or wrong. Unilever’s “Ben & Jerry’s” is a brand with values. It has unapologetically supported a number of politically sensitive movements promoting causes like voters rights and criminal justice reform. These brands are controversial and have consumers that are undyingly loyal and others that want to rip their heads offs. Thus, not every brand can be a “Brand with Values” nor would I recommend it. Ben & Jerry’s, for its part, is a highly successful, fast-growing brand.

“Brands with Values” require upfront board room conversations around the company’s commitments and moral foundations. There is no walking away from the strategy once you are a “Brand with Values.”

“Brands with Empathy” are yet another kind of brand that simply tell the consumers that it understands how they feel. They form a shared chemistry with consumers, making them feel like they totally “get them.” They need not necessarily have a purpose.

One of the iconic campaigns that put Cadbury on the top in the confectionary market in India endearingly featured a young woman, who overcome with emotion, in a cricket match, rushes on to the game field past a stunned and helpless guard to celebrate a ball hit for the boundary by her favorite player. Isn’t that how a lot of fans feel when critical match is on the line? Cadbury was the brand to say “I know how you feel,” to them, becoming the chocolate bar of choice for celebrating any precious moment.

Unilever is on to something with its “brands with purpose” strategy. However, it needs to be clear about what it is doing and do it the right way. A brand with empathy, brand with purpose or brand with values are very different things. It is easy for marketers to get confused about these because this way of branding does not fit with what they and all of us were taught in business school.

Quite possibly some brands won’t fit in any of those three buckets (and nor do they have to), and it would be fine for Mr. Jope to dump those if that is his vision for Unilever. It could take Unilever to the new heights he dreams of.

[For those wanting to get deeper into cognitive brands, there’s my book “Branding Between the Ears — Using Cognitive Science to Build Lasting Customer Connections ( and my author blogs at]

[1] “Does Your Mayo Need a Mission Statement?” Saabira Chaudhuri, WSJ May 20, 2022,