Ashwini Gangal

"You can't outsource responsibility": Paul Polman, former CEO, Unilever

At an event at Kochi yesterday morning, Paul Polman spoke about the need for companies to have 'sustainable development goals', something Unilever has been advocating for years. He also confirmed beyond doubt that brands should stand for a larger purpose.

Day Two of the 44th IAA (International Advertising Association) World Congress, Kochi, was kick-started by an effective talk delivered by former Unilever CEO (2009-2018) Paul Polman, who has spent his entire career in the consumer goods business. Both the subject and his style gave his session a TED talk-like feel.

"Marketing has a bad image today, trust is low, internet ads are annoying," said Polman, going on to talk a bit about the way consumerism in general has earned itself a poor reputation in recent times.

"You can't outsource responsibility": Paul Polman, former CEO, Unilever

Paul Polman

"Purpose has become a buzz word, but it's like putting lipstick on a pig," he asserted, before bringing up a recent Financial Times article titled 'Beyond the bottom line: should business put purpose before profit?'; he insisted that purpose, in his book, is a prerequisite to profit, and that corporates will do well to accept this.

"Corporations have become inhumane," he lamented, imploring corporate leaders to look beyond "financial profits for the quarter" and focus, instead, on long term sustainability. "We need to look beyond our myopic view of corporate financials and think about long term sustainability of the planet," Polman said, taking a Yuval Harari-esque stand on the subject of sustainability. Harari is an Israeli author who wrote a bestseller called Sapiens (first published in Hebrew in 2011, translated into English in 2014); he is of the view that the "real" problems homo sapiens face today are all global problems that impact all of humanity at once.

Polman would like CSR to evolve into RSC: "A little bit of corporate social responsibility, for page two of your annual report, won't do anymore. We need to become responsible social corporations." Typically, companies pick one brand from their portfolio and do a bit of CSR around it, just to tick a box. That, according to Polman, must change, and corporates ought to become more responsible in general.

How? He answered that in the next segment of his talk which was about the challenges CEOs face today. Polman encouraged corporate leaders to focus on de-carbonising the global economy, moving the business model from a short-sighted focus on shareholders to a more long term approach, moving towards a "circular economy" by reducing plastic waste ("companies have totally missed the plot on plastic"), and becoming a more inclusive economy through better distribution of wealth ("a billionaire doesn't wash his hair with shampoo more often").

"It's not easy being a CEO today," he conceded, given just how big a responsibility running a marketing company that makes consumer facing brands is in the modern era. No matter how expensive these "sustainable development goals" are (it costs trillions of dollars, annually), the collective cost of inaction is higher, Polman insisted. "You can outsource your value chain but not your responsibility," he said.

He then went on to talk about a related subject - the need for brands to stand for more than just functional, product-related aspects. It's equally important for brands to have a purpose, Polman confirmed. "Consumers buy products that fit their beliefs, they favour companies that have a point of view on issues that affect humanity/the environment..." he said, adding however, that cause-vertising for the sake of it won't quite cut it. Consumers can see through shallow, purpose-led ads made by marketing companies that don't really walk the talk at a corporate level. I'm glad he clarified that, because there are one too many cause-based ads out there today, and many of the companies commissioning them have no real, tangible offline efforts to speak of.

Polman then gave examples of a few Unilever brands that have taken a stand on societal issues: Lifebuoy (prevention of disease through handwashing), Dove (busting stereotypical definitions of beauty), Domex (prevention of open defecation), and Surf (encouraging sharing among kids, especially when it helps the underprivileged).

Though he didn't delve into it, Polman also highlighted the importance of "taking stereotyping out of advertising".