I wanted to hate this brand. It’s a giant, global multi-national corporation making about as much money per year as McDonalds, and Coke combined. I knew they’d been on Greenpeace’s naughty list recently. I knew they were quite fond of parading scantily clad women around in some commercials and promoting healthy body image charities in others. I wanted to use the words ‘Ubiquitous’, ‘Unholy’ and ‘Uber’ a lot. I was determined to wear out my ‘U’ key before the September cover article was through.

They’d started putting their logo on TV ads for all their products for goodness sake, right at the end, like the Brandpower people do. Except this wasn’t just brand power, this was brand supremacy on a global scale. They make pretty much every product in the supermarket, except for dried walnuts and corn, but up until March this year, the ‘U’ logo was something you noticed near the bottom of a deodorant can before you threw it out. It wasn’t something they paraded on television. Clearly some megalomaniac marketing director was now in the control room pulling levers, stroking a cat and training flying monkeys to take over what few parts of the world were yet to fall under the company’s all-knowing, all-seeing spell. It was probably Sauron. Or possibly even Satan – the devil himself.

Sadly, it wasn’t the devil. It was David. And he was quite lovely.

“Your products are used two billion times a day. Does that make Unilever the most ‘used’ brand in the world? Are you bigger than Coke?” I asked first up.

“That’s a very good question. That’s an important question that I haven’t been asked before,” he replied.

“I don’t know the answer off-hand, but I’m going to find out.”

David was the ‘Vice President Marketing Australasia’ and he was already making my inner journalist blush. My question was not just good, it was ‘very good’. Important even. It was going to be hard to hate him.

We talked for about 45 minutes about marketing strategy and the kinds of things which would excite you if you’re into that sort of thing, and bore you into a drooling pulp of human if you weren’t. I learnt that Bubble O’ Bill ice creams had become a Facebook sensation. I learnt that point of sale was still really important. I learnt that Unilever was the number eight media-spender in Australia and the number two media spender in New Zealand.

I liked this bit of conversation the most though:

ME: “One campaign that had caught my eye recently, which I wanted to ask about, was Golden Gaytime. It’s a little bit risqué; there’s an ad out there with some guys on a boat. Have you had any complaints?”

DAVID: “Complaints in what respect?”

ME: “Well, it’s flaunting homo-eroticism. It seems a reasonably brave decision to go out there and go, ‘You know what, it’s Golden Gaytime and we’re going to play up to the gay factor.’ Has anyone complained about that?”

DAVID: “Where do you believe we’ve played up to the gay factor?”

ME: “Well, ‘it’s hard to have a Gaytime on your own’ is the line, and the commercial shows two men taking their clothes off, grabbing each other’s arses and mildly humping each other on a boat. You wouldn’t say that was playing up to a bit of a gay factor?”

David didn’t seem to think it was as gay as I thought. He called it ‘nostalgic’. But that was probably because he knew someone from corporate communications was going to read the interview later.

I had the same problem when I spoke to the Chairman of Unilever Australasia, Sebastian Lazell. Only this time someone with a PR degree and clipboard was sitting right next to him. So he had to be extra-careful not to say anything silly. For the most part he didn’t, until I asked him if he’d seen the quote I’d sent through from Leslie Cannold (she’s a prominent Australian ethicist and women’s rights advocate and she’s the person journalists, like me, go to when they want a quote about how chauvinistic/hypocritical it is for a company to allow teenagers to paint their name on women’s bare chests in chocolate sauce on product websites like Lynx, whilst at the same time putting out TV ads like ‘Dove Evolution’.

Leslie had said this:

“The headless, pumped-up strippers that populate the Lynx site take us right back to the 1970s in terms of the way they commodify womens bodies. They are as unenlightened as any I have seen in a long time … I challenge Unilever to explain how these images are in any way different to those condemned in the real beauty campaign.”

It was like a chocolate-coated gold nugget falling from the sky into my keyboard.

I asked Sebastian to respond to Leslie’s challenge.

Sebastian responded initially by quoting, verbatim, the company mission statement:

“The most important thing to be fair about is as a broad-based consumer goods company, we’re trying to help people look good, feel good, get more out of life; create the better future every day.”

… at which point I swear I heard the PR chick give him a high five. He then spoke very briefly about how the two brands were very different, and then gave the following answer. (And before you read the following paragraph, I would like to take this opportunity to point out that Sebastian Lazell has a degree in English Literature from Oxford University, and that I have quoted him word for word):

“We have to respond to understand a direct need of different target audiences, and clearly the consumer of the Dove brand and the user of the Lynx brand are very different individuals, and therefore need to be addressed in different ways. What I think is interesting and unites them is that they both are operating in both cases, addressing some inherent potential insecurities or uncertainties, whether you’re talking about young women for whom self esteem can be further enhanced by recognition that all those female bodies and faces that are seen throughout the broad-based beauty industry at large may not reflect reality and that they should be more confident and comfortable with themselves. That addresses some insecurities we know are deeper in Australia, and it is in global society, because this is an initiative that Dove is driving around the world. Equally, the young teenage boy is deep down insecure and not always totally pleasant, but somewhat unconfident adolescent who, to become a strong and confident individual going forward, does sometimes need a little bit of help and support, and that’s where Lynx body sprays come in. Everything that we do on Lynx, we do absolutely challenge ourselves around ensuring that there is humour, that it is tongue in cheek, and that indeed in fact many young women are both fully aware of what we’re doing, frankly quite grateful that we’re helping young guys become somewhat more self-confident and a little less antisocial, and they’re in on the joke more often than not, because in essence, it’s a compliment to them, and if anything, the stereotype that is being kind of poked fun at is the somewhat unconfident and gawky young adolescent male…”

I shouldn’t be too hard on him, after all, George W. Bush went to Yale and couldn’t talk any gooder, but if I wanted to, and I did want to, I could have interpreted that answer as: ‘teenage boys are unpleasant and young women should be grateful Unilever lets them paint their names on their bare chests in chocolate sauce’.

Luckily, I found some journalistic integrity/compassion in the third draw of my kitchen cupboard and somehow managed to cut and paste those words into an answer which made some semblance of sense. It took me a good half an hour. And no-one from Unilever’s PR agency complained about the article, so I guess I did the right thing.

Actually, to be perfectly honest, it’s easy to create some light marketing entertainment by going for cheap laughs in a blog, but I actually came away from the interviews impressed with the company as a whole. They do have a long proud history of doing wonderful things for women, society and rainforests and they’ve been incredibly pro-active at changing farming practices of palm oil, the key ingredient in many of their soaps and spreads. The brand also has a fascinating history which you can’t read about in Wikipedia, and they’re responsible for creating some of the most memorable advertising campaigns in Australia’s history.

If you’ve got a spare 20 minutes and you’d like to get an insight into some brilliant marketing strategies and delve into the inner-workings of one of the world’s biggest brands, pop over to a newsagent and pick up a copy of the September issue of Marketing Magazine. You’ll be able to find it pretty easily. It’s the one that ended up with a giant blue ‘U’ on the cover. Sneaky bastards aren’t they.