On the MiC with Unilever’s Rob Master: the digital direction

Unilever's director of media, North America, sat down to talk to MiC about the digital landscape in advance of the CMA's Digital Marketing Conference.

Unilever has seen its fair share of success with mediacentric branding exercises lately, from the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty to The Axe effect. This is due in no small part to Rob Master, Unilever’s director of media for North America. Since joining the company in 2002, Master has pushed campaigns to new heights in the digital sphere by leading innovative online programs rich in storytelling and with a focus on consumer engagement.

Master is slated to speak about how Unilever is continuing to adapt its digital marketing strategy at this year’s CMA Digital Marketing Conference (http://www.the-cma.org/digital) in Toronto this month. MiC managed to catch up with Master in advance to hear his take on cyberspace, on the MiC.

What role is digital playing in Unilever’s marketing strategy right now?

Digital is playing a much more important role in how we tell our brand stories. In the past, digital was an add-on to a program, simply one of the channels we looked at. Today, in many programs, it is the centrepiece of media strategy, which is a dramatic shift from a couple of years ago.

Programs from Dove and Axe broke open the digital space for our businesses. Axe did it because they had to. Young male consumers weren’t watching traditional TV in large numbers like they had been, and digital was where they were consuming enormous amounts of media.

Dove is a different story. It was an opportunity to really take advantage of a growing movement of women online. We pride ourselves on Dove in terms of providing a much richer, deeper experience than just a 30-second spot, and bringing it to life on the Internet. So if you look at Unilever as an organization, in the US and Canada, across all of our brands, it’s (digital) really integrated to the overall media marketing mix.

What steps are you taking to increase innovation in the digital landscape?

One of the key steps is starting at the top. We have an unbelievable organizational commitment from senior leaders down, driving digital as a channel within the media mix. I think that’s an important part of driving that innovation.

The other part is that it’s not done in isolation. It’s an integral part of the plan, and in some cases the centerpiece of a campaign or strategy. I shouldn’t say in every case, but digital plays a role in every campaign.

As you think about the canvas on which you could tell a story, digital opens up opportunities to bring the story to life. Every brand has its own story. So whether it be Hellmann’s, Dove or Axe, each brand has provided us with an opportunity to tell a richer story that engages consumers.

What digital execution are you particularly proud of?

I’ll give you two terrific Canadian examples. They’re actually both Dove. The first is ‘Evolution’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYhCn0jf46U). It was a video created by our Ogilvy team in Canada. I can’t do it justice; it’s such a powerful sell. What was interesting about it was in the US marketplace, we talked at length about launching on the Super Bowl. It was such a powerful video, we felt it could really blow up and be amazing as a Super Bowl spot. We actually went around and around on it and we said, ‘Let’s just put it on Youtube and see what happens.’ A billion views later, Dove ‘Evolution’ is, I think, the most shining example in the industry of a viral video, and it’s been awarded at Cannes, etc.

The second one is called ‘Waking Up Hannah’ (http://www.wakinguphannah.ca/index.html). It’s the story of the trials and tribulations that go with being a twentysomething female in today’s society. It supports a new line of products, bars and bodywashes and antiperspirants aimed at that target. I think it speaks to the same principles Dove has around real beauty and does it in a way that’s more relevant for the female consumer in her 20s. We decided to go with launching on Youtube and it kind of blew up. It’s actually a choose-your-own-adventure, so it’s a very interactive, engaging component.

Where do you see the future of the digital landscape, in terms of marketing, going?

The most exciting thing about that question is that the rules are being written every day. The ability for consumers to engage with brands, and brands, in turn, to engage with consumers, is really exciting. I think things that provide that connection with consumers, like widgets or tools or applications, will be the things that drive us. Social networking is obviously a big opportunity, as well as interactive videos, asking consumers to lend us their voice in our community. Tools like that will be an important part of the digital strategy moving forward.