Unilever project sunlightWith the launch of Project Sunlight, Unilever has taken another leap forward towards what is increasingly recognized as the future of effective social marketing. Central to such leadership is the recognition that a brand needs to lead with its social purpose to ensure the brand is meaningful and relevant to customers lives. But more than that, what Unilever has done better than any other brand right now is to demonstrate the integrity of their storytelling through both the parent company and its product brands.

This was powerfully demonstrated with the launch of Project Sunlight this week. For years, sub-brands that used to benefit from the relative protection of the corporate veil didn’t feel compelled to define what the company stood for. But under the leadership of Paul Polman, Unilever has put its shoulder squarely behind its core positioning of sustainable living, which overarches all the messaging related to its product brands.

Project Sunlight takes this one step further by integrating the company and product brands into a single purposeful movement. Framed around the company’s core mission, “To build a brighter future,” Project Sunlight enlists the various sustainability, cause marketing, and foundation efforts of its many product brands in the service of generating acts of sunlight that collectively serve to fulfill its mission. In doing so, Unilever recognizes that well informed and media savvy consumers are now looking behind the product brand to the parent company, and have a far higher expectation of accountability and transparency across all the company’s brands.

This is not without parallel’s, for brands today sit at the intersection of compounding social crises such as obesity, GMO’s and lack of access to clean water, fast changing social technologies and rising customer activism. In response, the smartest marketers are seeking to mitigate risk and build their reputations by putting their shoulder behind their social impact work, engaging in conversations, and operating with greater transparency in order to inspire greater customer goodwill, loyalty, and ultimately sales.

The benefits of such an approach are many and include: protection of the company’s social license to operate, mitigating the risk of damaging consumer activism, reputation enhancement by earning consumer goodwill based on the good work the company does, marketing spend optimization due to an alignment between company and product brands, and employee and consumer loyalty.

Viewed in this light, the rationale behind Unilever’s decisions appear almost self-evident because there is so much upside and efficiency’s to be found through such an approach. But anyone with an understanding of the complexity of operating a multi-national corporation that includes dozens of household name brands will recognize that such a singular and seamless commitment is no small effort. In doing so, Unilever has not only positioned themselves for continued leadership across multiple categories and within the marketing world, but they have set a powerful example to other brands that will help motivate the private sector to play an ever-increasing role in scaling social change.

What Unilever has recognized, however, is that there is an enormous first-mover advantage to be enjoyed. By taking a risk to establish a company-wide point of view, they also get to choose exactly which key emotional property or promise to the world they want to lead with. As more and more brands rise to this challenge, the window of opportunity for their competitors will shrink. That does not mean Unilever is off the hook- good intentions must now be backed by real actions that yield tangible results around the globe, and the methodology and metrics by which to measure the social impact of a brand are perhaps as complicated as committing to such an effort itself.

Yet, by taking such a bold position, Unilever has demonstrated those new found qualities that define leadership in a fast-changing social business market place. Commitment to social purpose, a healthy appetite for risk, and a recognition that only through authenticity, transparency, and accountability can a brand transcend a product category, industry, or even market, and become a mainstay of popular culture their customers want to see succeed.

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