Unilever's Keith Weed: 'Marketing's at a crossroads'

Unilever's Keith Weed: 'Marketing's at a crossroads'
Unilever's Keith Weed: 'Marketing's at a crossroads'

Marketing as an industry is at a crossroads, and needs to adapt to better serve a changing world defined by diminishing natural resources and an ever-expanding global population, warns Keith Weed, chief marketing officer of Unilever.

Speaking at the Advertising Association Lead 2012 summit last week, the man behind the world’s second largest advertiser issued a strong plea for marketers to accept their responsibilities and help build a more ethical, sustainable future.
 
He said: "Marketing has, from the very beginning, with William Lever, Henry Ford and others, been about building brands based on serving consumers. I wonder whether if, in the 21st Century, we’ve got marketing too much as a sales machine, and we need to think a little bit more about how we get back to serving consumers in the breadth of what needs to be done?"

He added: "With capitalism being at a crossroads, I think marketing’s at a crossroads – quarterly capitalism has led to quarterly marketing. We need to make sure marketers of course worry about ROI and P&Ls, but also look more towards the long-term and the issues of the long-term, and get away from short-termism."

Since the start of Unilever’s 2011 financial year, the global conglomerate retreated from publishing its full financial results every quarter in favour of every other quarter.

Unilever positioned the shift as an attempt to provide a better understanding of the top-line performance of the business, while ensuring discussion of its full financial results is focused on the more meaningful time period of six months.

Last week, Weed told Marketing ahead of his presentation that he believes the industry has "an incredible opportunity to work alongside consumers to shape positively the lives of generations of consumers to come; to make marketing noble again and achieve sustainable growth – sustainable economic, environmental and social growth".

Noting that the world’s population is due to grow from today’s seven billion to nine billion, or even nine and a half billion, by 2050, Weed stressed the need to "reinvent marketing for the new environment".

He noted such population growth was the equivalent to "a new London every six weeks from today until 2050", and said the challenge is that "we’ve only got one planet".

"What are we going to do when we start running out [of resources]?" he asked. "The estimates are that copper and lead are going to run out in 20 to 25 years, iron ore is going to run out in our life time. Already we see big problems with water around the world, by 2025 two thirds of the world will have water stress – there will be 1.8 billion people with water scarcity…

"The real challenge is how do we get to sustainable consumption, how do we decouple supplying all that demand that is going to come from that extra population and at the same time not drain our planet?"

Weed's comments follow January’s launch of The Unilever Foundation, a partnership with five other global organisations (Oxfam, PSI, Save the Children, UNICEF and the World Food Programme) dedicated to improving the quality of life in developing markets through the provision of hygiene, sanitation, access to clean drinking water, basic nutrition, and enhancing self-esteem.

The chief marketing officer concluded his address to industry leaders with a frank industry assessment, designed to resonate beyond the bottomline concerns of Unilever’s shareholders.

"We call people consumers," he said, "and for an industry that calls people consumers I think we have to think a lot harder about consumption, and the impact of consumption in a resource restrained world. As the cliché says, ‘if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem’."

Follow Arif Durrani on Twitter: @DurraniMix

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