Unilever Shows Brand Meaning Is Vital, But So Is Usefulness

It's interesting to see the news coming out of Unilever. Its Sustainable Living brands are thriving. They account for 60% of the group's growth and are growing 50% faster than any other part of the business. 

The sustainable brands include Ben & Jerry's, Hellman's and Dove -- and the move to sustainability is reported on in Marketing Week as coming from research a couple of years ago that pinpointed that a third of consumers already buy sustainably, while one in five intend to.

So "brands with purpose," that great clarion call we have all been deafened by, finally has a great example in Unilever. Not only is it just a plain simple good thing to do in its own right, but building sustainable brands is good for the bottom line too. If you're like me, you wouldn't dream of buying bananas that are not labelled fair trade, and when offered a choice of tea or some other household product, you'll generally go for the one that is kinder to the environment.

The mood is clearly behind sustainable products if these brands are delivering growth 50% higher than their stablemates at the FMCG giant. I just have a single point to raise against us all getting carried away with ourselves. Amazon, Facebook, Starbuck's and Google, to name just a few -- they seem to be doing rather well too, don't they?

Space is too limited to go into why those brands might have question marks against them, but we could just settle on each having very smart accountants who seem adept at getting their clients' brands front and centre in the UK while paying the bulk of the tax on that trade in some other jurisdiction.

Every time this story about tax arrangements, workers' rights or whatever subject social media is getting heated about blows up, there are endless vows to never use them again. However,l look at the huge growth in their multibillion-dollar profits each year and it would suggest that this quitting of brands we don't think of as nice isn't exactly happening.

This raises the fundamental question for brands. We all know it's good to have meaning, but can that meaning just be a need? Isn't it enough to scratch an itch better than any other brand around? That's surely what many businesses do which have questionable working conditions and tax arrangements. I mean, just look at the high street. Plenty of Sports Direct stores, what's happened to their rivals? Who do you think won? The good guy? Or the shop that has a dubious record on worker rights but discounts heavily?

So I am not for one second saying that sustainable brands are not wonderful. They clearly are -- they will always be top of my shopping list, and probably yours too. The proof is the stellar growth they are providing for Unilever.

What I am saying, however, is that brand meaning clearly doesn't have to be about sustainability or CSR. Just look at who else is thriving and we can probably boil it down to brand meaning equating to the brand meeting a customer need better than its rivals. It could be allowing them to buy great products that are better for the environment, or getting a package deliver tomorrow or a place where all your friends share their wonderful lives in full colour.

We call it brand meaning. I'm wondering whether it should be "brand meeting" -- meaning meeting expectations, meeting budgetary constraints, meeting time restrictions?

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