Social purpose fatigue

Unilever has a problem with its mission: to make sustainable living commonplace. Right now consumers are overwhelmed by social purpose fatigue. As ever more companies espouse this cause it contributes ever less to differentiation or even simple attraction. Virtue should be its own reward, especially when shoppers are feeling the pinch in more ways than one.

When Body Shop first campaigned against animal testing they were pioneers; that is now a cliché. Better to adopt some humility, do what’s right and drop the virtue signalling. Indirect communication, through press coverage and relevant sponsorship, has a better chance of setting brands in a positive light than grandstanding on virtue in advertising, packaging and social media.

Listening to consumers will be more productive than preaching but there must also be a critical intelligence in this to find appropriate cues to change. In a world turned upside down since 2020 who can presume to know the mind of any demographic in detail? Where today is there comfortable consensus about public values? On one thing, though, nearly everyone agrees; nobody likes a bully, nobody likes being bullied. Understanding the day to day challenges and aspirations of most people’s lives is the route to public esteem and preference, for brands as much as politicians.

Assuming everyone has arrived at a ‘woke’ sensibility, for example, is foolish; most experience it as coercion or worse. Unilever must be on guard against arriving at a Bud Light tipping point. The grain of popular opinion and perception is not infinitely flexible. Blandly assuming it can be is a quick route to mass market irrelevance.

shampoo icecream and flying fruits and veg representing unilever products

Cleaner, healthier purpose

Since the pandemic health and hygiene loom larger for many consumers. They want reassurance that products are safe, clean, harmless. Aspartame has become a popular bogey ingredient, now blamed for an ever-widening range of horrible conditions and consequences. Unilever could, we imagine, take a strong stance here; at any rate, if it has issues to address it should fix them quickly.

Nobody wants to think they may be poisoning themselves or their families with the food and household products they trust. Concern for the environment, for the working conditions of remote populations, for the overall fairness, safety or honesty of business practices, while worthy, are less critical than the basic demand: ‘first do no harm…to me.’ In the reduced and destabilised condition where so many in the once-affluent world now find themselves, to be the champion of consumer and household safety is a route to preference to be taken with discretion and imagination.

Unilever is still nearly invisible

‘U’ needs to raise its profile and endorse its brands far more easily. It needs to contribute actively to the perceived quality of all its brands. Unlike P&G’s simple logo and Nestlé’s flexible endorsement system, the Unilever U just isn’t performing, in our view. 

We believe there are agile, imaginative ways to endorse across the different categories; as simple as Purina’s endorsed brand structure. We believe the answer could be a simplified symbol that as flexible and emotive as the Virgin brand and a playful naming endorsement system to bring focus, excitement and vitality to the brand portfolio.

Purina group of brand logos

Unilever needs a love-brand strategy.

Profitability flows from a portfolio of brands loved by consumers and indispensable to their daily lives. Rising prices are a big challenge but shoppers are very conscious about where they are prepared to sacrifice quality and where they will not. The Unilever brand has the potential to own that ‘irreplaceable’ category in hundreds of millions of lives. To thrive, in other words, precisely because these are challenging times.

Applying our Brand Growth Potential methodology offers every brand the possibility of greater performance and longevity. Work with Fruiting League one brand at a time and start converting more consumers to long-term loyalty and advocacy. It is the product brands the make the U a thing of value – the energy cannot really flow the other way, for most people.


Unilever’s new CEO needs a new message for shareholders; a streamlined and strategically articulated brand portfolio is no news. Going back to basics on consumer engagement, understanding the fractured quality of public trust, focusing on genuine health and safety in products are the basis of a love brand strategy that will nurture the growth potential of each brand across multiple audiences.

Gently dropping the broadband virtue signalling will draw many who find this repellent to re-engage with one of the world’s most trusted companies in a bond of mutual respect that will also impress investors.

Twenty years ago I was the Creative Brand strategist leading the rebrand of Unilever with a project focus of vitality. Perhaps now is the moment to revisit that journey for new lessons in different times?


Written by

Kershen Teo
Creative Brand strategist