How Unilever Prepared for Right Now: Aline Santos on Brand Activism

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Cover image for  article: How Unilever Prepared for Right Now: Aline Santos on Brand Activism

View Jack Myers Leadership Conversation with Unilever Global EVP and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer on-demand here. 2020 continues to be tumultuous as we deal with the ongoing pandemic crisis against the backdrop of civil uprising caused by patterns of police brutality against Black citizens. Organizations are navigating these uncharted waters and attempting to discern the best way forward. In light of this challenging environment, the latest MediaVillage Leadership Conversation featuring Aline Santos, Global EVP and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for Unilever takes on a new significance. Brands are being asked to do more than ever in light of social unrest and a demand for a commitment to diversity and inclusion that matches the rhetoric. In the most recent Leadership Conversation, moderated by MediaVillage founder, Jack Myers and Aline Santos tap their respective backgrounds and expertise to wrestle with the twin ideas of brand relevance and activism.

Santos is no stranger to MediaVillage, having been among the inaugural inductees in the MediaVillage Advancing Diversity Hall of Honors in 2017. At the time, Santos was coming off the success of the Unilever Unstereotype Initiative, which launched in 2016. The Unstereotype Initiative was created to confront the use of stereotypes in advertising and promote portrayals that would be more reflective of diverse perspectives. Since then, Unilever has continued to lead from the front on confronting issues such as lack of diversity in advertising, new product launches, corporate activism, and more with Santos leading the way. The need for activism over advocacy has only become more pronounced in the years since that first Advancing Diversity event.

Unilever's reach ensures that it can change the marketing landscape. As Santos states, "Unilever brings a way of doing business that hopefully is going to be inspiring when we think about advertising. The billions that comprise the advertising industry can shape culture." Unilever's desire to shape culture is part of the larger acknowledgment that having a position on the issues of the day goes hand in hand with being a good citizen. The resurgent Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic are current challenges that Unilever meets head-on.

When asked about how Unilever is dealing with these issues, Santos connects the complex ways both issues influence their business. She says, "COVID-19 coupled with long-standing inequalities and racial justice is a devastating one-two punch. COVID-19 has given rise to food insecurity, domestic abuse, and a strain on household finances, pushing us toward depression. This is a spectacular combination of negative factors." The factors cited are profoundly human and not always the types of observations that business leaders are comfortable discussing. However, Santos has made an impact throughout her career by not only diagnosing these types of issues but also developing actionable steps to address them using the power of advertising.

"It is very easy for brands to talk, but at Unilever, we have to walk the talk and back it up," says Santos, "we have to own our issues rather than ignore them. Living our values makes us relatable to a younger generation." Research has shown that millennials and Gen-Z are more likely to support brands and organizations that align with their values. Unilever's brand positioning that supports UN Sustainable Development goals, invest in climate change, and allows for the activism of Ben & Jerry's are all examples of living their values. In an environment where culture is increasingly valuable, Santos says that Unilever recognizes that it is an exchange of values between the consumer and the brand that gives them context. The brand can't dictate culture but has to understand their needs and reflect their importance in a relevant way.  

The themes of purpose marketing, agility in messaging, and earned consumer trust show up consistently throughout this conversation. What becomes apparent upon watching and listening to Myers and Santos is how much leadership truly matters in steering companies in the right direction. We are witnessing many brands scrambling to get their messaging in line with the current moment. In contrast, Unilever has been focused on these issues for years, making its voice far more credible. Santos cites their history of leading from the front on social issues and leaves room for new brands to join in but with more action than words. It is clear that under Aline Santos' leadership, Unilever is not only well positioned in the present but has established a roadmap to continue to lead on social issues. This conversation highlights just how vital the connection between brand rhetoric and brand action is if meaningful (and measurable) change is possible. 

View Jack Myers Leadership Conversation with Unilever Global EVP and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Aline Santos on-demand here.

Also read:
Branding with a Purpose. A Leadership Conversation with Unilever's Aline Santos by Charlene Weisler

Born on Human Rights Day: Unilever's Aline Santos Was an Activist at Birth by David Berkowitz

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