Conny Braams

Chief Marketing & Digital Officer
“Purposeful brands grow; the business case is proven”
As one of the world’s largest consumer packaged goods companies, Unilever needs to take its environmental and social responsibilities seriously whilst showing steady profitable growth. We ask Conny Braams, Global Chief Digital and Marketing Officer, how she balances these two major responsibilities?
Doing well by doing good was William Lever’s mantra when he founded Unilever’s predecessor in 1905. It inspired his successors to lead the company in a very sustainable way. Is Unilever truly living up to Mr. Lever's promise these days?
‘Doing well by doing good, implicitly, has always been part of our DNA. It’s only in the last 10 to 15 years that we've been way more explicit about it. One and a half years ago, we launched our new Unilever compass with our purpose: make sustainable living commonplace. We adhere to our three beliefs: 1. people with purpose thrive, 2. brands with purpose grow, and 3. companies with purpose last. So, it is truly at the centre of everything Unilever does. Unilever presents itself to the world mostly via the 400 brands across the world. All of them are unravelling their purpose on this journey. Some of them have been on this journey longer than others. A few examples: Dove promotes self-esteem for the wide spectrum of beautiful women Knorr wants to make sure that people eat well - for themselves, but also for the planet – and Hellmann's Make Taste, Not Waste to offer solutions to food waste. So I think we're really living up to the increasingly important promise.’
Currently 28 of the Unilever brands are marked as sustainable living brands, or brands with purpose. How do you juggle the responsibility of doing good and the shareholder pressure for results and growth?
‘We don't see it as a trade-off. We believe that sustainable products and brands make good business sense. An example: we have set out to create a one-billion-dollar business for plant-based meat and dairy alternatives. And we know that in the next five to seven years this segment will grow rapidly. Brands and products like The Vegetarian Butcher, Magnum Vegan and Hellmann's Vegan are spot-on in consumer trends. And that's an example of how you can be sustainable and grow at the same time.’
So far, it’s only 28 out of 400 brands though...
‘That's why it is a journey. We are very strict with our definition of purposeful brands; the brand should not only say something that matters to people and planet, it actually needs to  take action. It is the brand-SAY and the brand-DO that counts.  And it only holds true if you do more good, and not just less harm. And it pays off; these 28 grow twice as fast as the rest of our brands. It even costs less, due to green energy, less waste in our factories, and a more efficient changeover of lines. And it’s a huge magnet for talent. Younger people want to work for businesses that do good in the world. In the 54 of 74 markets that we measure this in, we are the number one employer of choice. In the end, even more so than the brands, it's our people that make our company. Furthermore, our practices reduce risk because they guarantee the sustainability of agriculture. So, the business case is sound – more growth, less costs, less risks, and better talent – and all stakeholders, including the shareholders, are on board.’

As for cost savings on operational costs, it probably involves a lot of investment up front.
‘Yes, but we don't do this alone. Many businesses are helping us by being on the same journey. For instance, sustainable palm oil industry and the shipping industry. As for logistics, we don't need to invent the electric car, but we use it. So you need to work hand-in-hand with your partners throughout the entire value chain. The biggest thing I've learned is to create ambitious targets. It works in business, it is working for ED&I*, and it's going to work for sustainability as well. But first you must put your own house in order.’
Which brand that made the sustainable leap are you most proud of?
‘That would be Hellmann's. A third of the food we produce in the world gets wasted. And 60 per cent of that is in the consumers' households. They’ll look in the fridge and think they’ve got nothing to eat. But with Hellmann's mayonnaise you can turn anything into something delicious. Which is why Make Taste, Not Waste is spot on; this is where you draw consumers in, and really help them change their behaviour. The Hellmann's campaign has already reached more than a hundred million households who are now acutely aware of the waste issue. It has even caused an exchange of recipes around the world, with local twists everywhere.’
How do you ensure that these initiatives are more than a fad and perform well in the long term?
‘By making sure that brand purpose is something that builds over time sustainably. For instance, racial hair discrimination in the U.S. is a major thing. Girls with textured hair were even sent home from school because of their hair. Dove recognised this and said: 'No, it's all about natural beauty.' 14 states have since passed legislation that prevents hair discrimination in schools, workplace, and pools. So here, Dove helped girls with their self-esteem by taking action against rules that are not inclusive and a source of racial injustice. And fighting this takes time, persistence, and belief in the right cause.

How can you also inspire other marketers to do good?
‘By sharing the business case. After all, many marketeers are still driven by making sure that brands grow. A brand can do good for the people and the planet in many ways and grow at the same time. And we also need others to show the way, as we are still on a journey ourselves.’
How can you drive consumer behaviour towards the more sustainable living brands?
'Digital provides plenty of opportunities. For instance, people are used to scanning codes so you can add QR codes on packs that give additional sustainability information on origin, CO2 or full eco-labels, or reward schemes for choosing sustainable products. One of the best working rewards systems is by Alibaba, where people who buy more sustainable products can plant a tree. This has led to millions of trees being planted across China by over 500 million users. There are several levers that can drive consumers to choose more sustainably. If ever there was a moment, it is now. In all our research we see that consumers are more conscious; they really want to buy the products that are better for them and for the world we live in. They just need the right information.’

How about the plastic pollution challenge; is it too big to handle?
‘No, it's not. We are taking it very seriously. Our commitments towards creating a sustainable world are powered by our innovations and of course that includes rethinking our plastic packaging. Plastic is a fantastic versatile material, but it should stop using virgin plastic as much as possible and above all, it should not end up in nature. 60 per cent of our business, and most of our growth, comes from developing and emerging markets. There, we are actively involved in setting up recycling systems. We’re also looking at alternatives to pack differently. We call it: less, better and no plastic. We've now got Skip washing capsules in a carton box. And we’re working on refilling and concentrating our products so we don’t have to transport water and we can use less packaging. Less plastic will be hugely important for a sustainable future.’
You need to make over 400 different brands more sustainable. Isn't it easier for start-ups like Holy, Lazy Vegan, Flower Farm to start off sustainably?
‘It might be easier to start like that. The question is: how do you have the most impact? That is what makes me want to stay at Unilever. 2.5 billion people use our products every day; that is unbelievable. Knorr wants to make sure that seven billion people can eat sustainably by 2025, by driving more biodiversity in the plants and vegetables we eat. That is impact! But I love the start-ups. They help us with innovative solutions for recycling plastics and we work with them in many other innovation partnerships. Both start-ups and multinationals need to play their part. And often they need to do it together for the biggest impact’.
In 2016 Unilever launched the #Unstereotype campaign, against stereotyping in commercials. Should more companies take a stance on social inclusion and diversity?
‘Yes, because it is the right thing to do. But again, it also makes really good business sense. Nowadays, 98 per cent of our ads are unstereotypical and more than 60 per cent are progressive. From the moment we drove #Unstereotype in our ads, our brand power went up and our purchase intention went up quite dramatically. So it's a no-brainer for your ads. And now we have launched #Unstereotype ACT 2. The aim is to go much deeper to make real, structural changes to the entire marketing process – from insight generation to the way we brief product design, to the way we represent people in front and behind the camera.
Having spent 31 years at Unilever, what is the spark that keeps you there?
‘You're really lucky if you find a company that is linked strongly to your personal values. Over time, I've noticed that the Unilever values very much suit me – integrity, respect, responsibility and pioneering. I like the development opportunities that Unilever has provided me, it throws you in the deep at times – into new jobs, new geographies, new functions, new adventures - and then you discover that you can swim. I worked in Spain, Singapore, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and now in London. That really says something about the development opportunities available. Furthermore, I like to work with teams and I love our multi-stakeholder model which helps improve the future for everyone.’

The CMO is no longer always part of the board room but has been replaced by the CCO. What is your take on that development?
‘You see many variations of this. I'm happy that I'm part of the leadership executive. My new role of Chief Digital and Marketing Officer is not commonly found in companies. And it's not just digital marketing. I'm responsible for marketing worldwide, but also for the end-to-end digitalization of the total company. As long it’s clear what’s the job to be done, then that defines what the right role is and where it needs to sit within the company.’
About Conny Braams
Conny started her career in 1990 as a product manager at Unilever. She has been working for this fast-moving consumer goods giant for 31 years. She successfully filled several EVP roles across the world and now serves as the Global Chief Digital and Marketing Officer based at the firm’s headquarters in London.

About Unilever
With over 149,000 employees across the world, 400 brand names in over 190 countries, and a 51 billion turnover, Unilever is one of the leading multinational consumer goods companies. Unilever products include food, ice cream, home care and beauty & personal care, and such brands as Knorr, Dove, Magnum, and Robijn. Unilever presents itself as a global company with a global purpose: to make sustainable living commonplace.

1. In the podcast, Conny Braams talks about a Kantar paper finding a correlation between purpose and brand power. Read the paper via the following link: 
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