‘We’ll distance ourselves from agencies that don’t challenge stereotypes’: Unilever’s marketing chief on diversity issues

Unilever’s pledge to remove harmful stereotypes from its ads goes way beyond lip service, according to top marketer Aline Santos. So much so that the marketer has warned she won’t spend as much money with agencies that can’t do better on diversity.

The warning comes as Unilever doubles down on diverse marketing three years after the launch of a global push for more progressive portrayals of women in its ads. Since then, the advertiser has made noticeable strides toward those portrayals but still has a way to go. For example, Unilever has tested 1,500 ads for gender and ethnic stereotypes since 2016. Of the ads tested 6% of them are deemed outdated by consumers. Ads that haven’t undergone the test don’t resonate as well, however, with just 45% of those ads regarded as strongly progressive, said Santos.

To try and close the diversity gap, Unilever asked 63 of its marketers and agency execs in London, Rotterdam and New York to take a DNA test earlier this year. The concept is to provide evidence that if marketers have a better understanding of their own backgrounds — assisted by psychologists — they’ll be able to scrap preconceived views of who people who buy their ads actually are.

Digiday caught up with Santos to discuss the study’s results and find out whether it can be scaled beyond the initial three tests. Below are excerpts from the discussion, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What have the DNA tests revealed about the company’s advertising?
When we did the test, we weren’t sure it would work. The psychologists who worked with us said initiatives like this don’t often make a difference. The people who took part in the test took part in one test prior to a workshop they had with the behavioral scientists and then they took another one after. There was a 34% drop in the stereotypes employed by the group between the sessions.

What happens next?
Lots of marketers who weren’t able to participate in the test have asked about it. Our agencies want to scale it across their own organizations. We’ll start rolling out the test to other markets. We’re hosting an important meeting in Cannes with the key heads of all the agency networks and their creative directors to talk about the experiment. We will ask them to roll it out across their own organizations because the results were dramatic. The aim is for this part of the “Unstereotype” initiative to become something that influences everything we do.

What happens if agencies don’t support the move?
We’ve seen strong leadership from the heads of the WPP, IPG and Omnicom main agencies we work with. Competitors who would never normally sit together are cooperating to tackle this issue because they see diversity as a critical problem for their own businesses. That said, if there are agencies that are not on the same page as us, then naturally we’d put distance between us as there’s a lack of shared values. There are people in the industry that are opportunistic and like to jump on these issues. It’s easier to spot those businesses that aren’t serious about addressing something like stereotypes in ads. The money, hours and resource spent by our agencies to remove these stereotypes from our ads tell me that they are serious about it.

How do you make sure agencies are walking the diversity walk?
One basic thing we do is at the end of every year we have a scorecard to rank where our agencies are when it comes to diversity. We’re also looking at every ad that airs to see the level of stereotypes that are featured. At the moment, 94% of the ads we test are deemed progressive, while the remaining 6% aren’t. In those cases where the ads are regressive, we either pull them off air completely or modify them. It’s the best way for us to check our agencies are being creative and thoughtful of the people who buy our brands.

Why has it taken Unilever this long to tackle ethnic stereotypes?
We launched the “Unstereotype” initiative around gender three years ago because we felt it was the most critical in terms of the problem we needed to tackle. Nearly half our management roles are filled by women, and that is up from 38% a year ago. As that representation has improved, we’ve seen our approach to diversity take on more dimensions so there’s a level of intersectionality to how gender diversity has made us look more closely at other aspects such as racial, sexual and religion.

We’re on the right track when it comes to challenging ethnic stereotypes in our ads, but I want us to be more progressive because that then pushes society. That’s not always easy as not all our brands in other markets are ready for progressive moves. You will see us start to be more progressive in spite of that, however, as we learn more about what it takes. We ran an ad for Brooke Bond Red Label tea in India three years ago that featured a transgender band. It was a conservative society, and yet we decided to promote the brand in a different way. And when we did, we found that we were helping to normalize transgender people. You’ll see some more moves like that which are more reflective of reality and more progressive.


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