Something remarkable has occurred in the world of marketing and advertising over the last two months. Two of the world’s biggest consumer goods companies, Unilever and Procter & Gamble, have run advertising for the holding company rather than for the brands they own. Given that we punters can’t buy the holding companies (unless of course we are investors), the question is why.

What we’re seeing – and Unilever and P&G are just two, big examples – is driven by consumer empowerment, with customers now able to scrutinise companies online and punish unethical and irresponsible behavior. Consequently, there is a need for big holding companies, especially those in the consumer goods arena, to clean up their acts and then tell the world they’ve done so. Both P&G and Unilever have good corporate social responsibility records, so they’re happy to talk about it. Will many other companies now will follow suit?

Before Christmas, Unilever launched its Project Sunlight initiative, named after the village that the founder of the British part of Unilever, Lord Leverhulme, built to house his factory workers. He had an unusual philosophy for a successful Victorian businessman: “we do well by doing good”. It’s this sentiment that Project Sunlight seeks to build on.

This side of Christmas it happened again. P&G launched it’s Thank you, mom campaign in the build up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Leaving the morality of awarding the Games to Russia aside, this was also an unusual move. Both Unilever and P&G are brand obsessed organisations. Most purchasers of their products wouldn’t even know who made them – they buy Tide or Dove or Oral B or Persil, not Unilever or P&G. Yet here were both companies spending millions of dollars promoting themselves.

The ways the two companies have chosen to part from anonymity are very different. Unilever’s film questions the wisdom of having children, given our legacy to them. It’s emotional and well-shot, and although it’s not particularly clear what specific action individuals are expected to take as a result, it’s clearly the start of a campaign and the first consumer manifestation of its Sustainable Living Plan.

P&G’s ad is a tear-jerker – if your tears are jerked by vignettes of proud American moms driving their growing children to Olympic glory. It’s beautifully made by one of the best ad agencies anywhere, Wieden and Kennedy in Portland, Oregon. Although both ads do feature a list of the companies’ brands in the end sequences, these are, as I’ve said, very much holding company efforts.

Being brand-obsessed, both companies are consumer-obsessed. And being big, and therefore subject to negative scrutiny, they want to appear as responsible corporate citizens, taking active steps to conduct their business in line with a new code of business ethics and a growing demand for sustainability. So far, so familiar.
As we know most companies have by now adopted programs to help defend themselves from familiar and often justified charges such as an obsession with short term goals and lack of care for the environment and its workers, to name just a couple. In some cases it is greenwash, no question (although there’s a view that even greenwash is a small but necessary step in the right direction). But Unilever and P&G are far too big and too smart to be messing around. Anyone who has heard Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman speak about the need for business to take responsibility for its impact on the planet would not doubt his sincerity.

So what’s going on? Well, we’re seeing a consumer-driven, internet-enabled evolution in consumer marketing. Before now, consumer goods companies and their communications, were all about developing brand and product benefits. They focused on differentiating their brands from the competition and motivating consumers to buy their products, via special features, pricing and promotion. And actually, that’s still largely the case. But, as I’ve mentioned, people increasingly need to “buy” the company behind the brands. These multi-brand holding companies are effectively hidden from the buying public. Now consumers are interested in how they operate: Do they source their products sustainably? Do they treat their suppliers and workers ethically? Are they seeking to reduce their water use and carbon footprint even as they grow? Their ethics and behavior have become relevant to consumer purchasing decisions. So they’re turning the previously anonymous holding company names into brands too.

This is not cheap – and it’s not without risk. If a mishap should befall, say, Pringles, that’s containable. With the link between brand and owner out in the open, it becomes more difficult to prevent more general reputational damage. With the holding company exposed, it’s that entity that will come under scrutiny during, say, a contamination scare or a fight about workforce conditions. Where the company’s consumer-facing brand is the same as the holding company, the damage goes company-wide, as Apple, Nike and Tesco – among many others – have found out.

So, a real change is occurring and although there are costs attached to it and cynics will see it as a smokescreen, others may not. Companies are cleaning up their acts and treating workers, suppliers and consumers more considerately while seeking to operate more sustainably and help their customers do the same. They haven’t turned into philanthropists over night, of course. They’re still seeking to grow and satisfy their boards and shareholders with profits. But if the way increase profit is actually to be a better corporate citizen, then there is at least some chance that all businesses will be encouraged to join in. And that’s a good thing.

Tim Lindsay CEO at D&AD.
From:, Tuesday 28 January 2014