Using Storytelling To Change Consumer Behavior: Q&A With Unilever's Jonathan Atwood

At the 2013 Yale-Interbrand Sustainability Marketing Conference: The Power of True Stories, I connected with Unilever’s Jonathan Atwood, VP for sustainable living and corporate communications, to discuss how one of the world’s leading suppliers of food, home and personal care products uses storytelling to share its sustainability journey and change consumer behavior. 

Unilever recently launched Project Sunlight, an ambitious, long-term initiative to motivate millions of people to live sustainably. Project Sunlight aligns the missions and campaigns of several of Unilever’s leading brands into what Atwood describes as a “single, global movement with a purpose – building a brighter future.”

Q: How has Unilever utilized storytelling to communicate its sustainability story? 

A: Storytelling is an integral and critical part of marketing at Unilever. In our mission to make sustainable living commonplace, one of our goals is to impact consumer behavior. To interest consumers, we need to tell the stories of the work Unilever and our brands are doing to bring the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) to life. The USLP, which we announced three years ago, includes three pillar goals: to help one billion people improve their health and well-being, halve the environmental footprint of our products, and source 100% of agricultural raw materials from sustainable sources.

Q: What are the key elements of compelling storytelling?  

A: In 2013, we introduced Crafting Brands for Life as our marketing way of life. It links brands to the USLP through each brand’s purpose and social value. 

It starts with putting people first and thinking about their lives and their needs and how our products and brands are truly meeting their needs. Building Brand Love looks to find a human truth and a product truth, to define a brand purpose. Also, we look to “unlock the magic.” It’s only by creating magic in the lives of the people we serve – sparks of magic powered by brilliant ideas, contagious conversations, exceptional brand experiences – that we will unleash the power of our brands to inspire people to live sustainably.

Q: How are Project Sunlight and social media being used as a storytelling platform? 

A: Storytelling has always been a part of Unilever’s marketing – whether it is a 30-second commercial, a Web series or what we put on our packaging. In the current landscape, the proliferation of social conversation has made storytelling even more prevalent in society. Every tweet, post or picture on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram tells a story.

With the launch of the Project Sunlight film, “Why Bring a Child into This World,” we are not only telling our story about how we see the possibilities for a bright future for children and the world, we are looking to inspire people to join the conversation and tell theirs as well. With this initiative, we knew there was already a community of like-minded people out there, and we provided a topic and a place for them to come together. We’ve already seen tremendous traction online –Twitter engagement was five times the benchmark on launch day, and our “acts of sunlight,” which represent actions that people can take on the Project Sunlight hub, as well as viewing the film on YouTube, continue to rise exponentially after reaching 10 million globally within the first 48 hours.

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