July 12, 2017

51: A brand leader with a conscience: Kathleen Dunlop of Vaseline

Kathleen Dunlop is global marketing director for the Unilever brand, Vaseline. In this week’s “Marketing Today” podcast, she talks about “The Vaseline Healing Project,” a social-mission initiative created and developed in collaboration with BBH and the nonprofit organization, Direct Relief. That effort was recognized with a 2017 Effie Award in the Personal Care category.

In her discussion with Alan Hart, she also touches on experiences that have shaped her, particularly her mission to Jordan as part of “The Vaseline Healing Project,” and how efforts there were “literally helping people get back on their feet.” And she talks about brands connecting with consumers through purposeful storytelling with a conscience: “The most powerful stories today, the ones that seem to be connecting the most with the people who buy our products, are the ones about purpose, the ones that take a stand…If you don’t take a stand, and people can be indifferent to you, you will find you have no followers.”

Highlights from this week’s “Marketing Today” podcast include:

  • Dunlop discusses the key insight for “The Vaseline Healing Project.” ([0:33])
  • The delight in having a product that can help people in difficult circumstances. ([4:14])
  • Finding the right partners: The team behind “The Vaseline Healing Project.” ([6:24])
  • Marketing effectiveness: Communicating a brand’s purpose with a relevant story to drive business. ([8:56])
  • Dunlop’s formula for success: “Be curious and say yes.” ([11:42])
  • A challenge facing marketers: The danger is trying to be everything to all people and ending up not being special to anyone. ([19:07])
Read Full Transcript

- [Alan] This year, like in years past, I'm excited for a partnership with the North American Effie awards. The Effie awards honor the most effective efforts of the year, and I will be going behind the scenes with a number of Effie winners from this year's competition.

- For all of us, it's about predicting where the consumer's going, and getting half of it right.

- One of the things we want to do is create ads that don't suck.

- Embracing change creates great possibility.

- [Alan] I'm Alan Hart, and this is Marketing Today.

- [Kathleen] I'm Kathleen Dunlop. I'm a global brand director in marketing at Unilever.

- [Alan] Well congrats on winning the Effie for the Vaseline project.

- [Kathleen] Thank you.

- [Alan] Tell us a little bit about that campaign.

- [Kathleen] The project itself, the Vaseline healing project, is a partnership with an international NGO, Direct Relief, to deliver aid to areas that have been hit by natural disaster or a crisis, or are excluded from traditional medical systems due to extreme poverty.

- [Alan] And what made you create that campaign? What was the key insight, or what were you driving towards?

- [Kathleen] So the key insight behind the campaign is the same as the key insight behind the program itself, which is that there is this very real, urgent need for access to medical care, and in particular skin care in these kinds of areas, areas hit by natural disasters, conflict, crisis zones. The breakthrough for us came when we took our brand tagline, The healing power of Vaseline, and turned that into a question, and asked ourselves where is our healing power really needed? Where is it urgently needed? Is there somewhere in the world where we can make a really positive difference through our product and what our product stands for, the healing power of Vaseline? And that led us to do exploratory interviews with UNHCR, which is the UN Agency for Refugees, Doctors Without Borders, The Centers for Disease Control, and we found out through that that actually Vaseline, Vaseline Jelly, was already being used in some of these places, and we weren't a part of it. So Doctors Without Borders, in the five years prior to when we spoke to them, had used one and a half tons of Vaseline Jelly in their field hospitals. And when we heard that, and we also heard from UNHCR that skin conditions are in the top 10 medical issues that they see in refugee camps, we said we need to do something. Like, this is, they're practically calling us by name. And so it's time for us to do something. And that's what lead to the Vaseline healing project.

- [Alan] So what was the process like, getting from that insight and all those conversations and research to the actual campaign?

- [Kathleen] So the same insight that lead to the campaign is that program insight of the real need for Vaseline. And the way we boiled it down, together with our creative agency BBH, into a clear focused insight for the brief was that it's exactly that same product that you have in your bathroom, and I have in my medicine cabinet, and we probably all have somewhere, and maybe we've forgotten about it. It's that same ordinary product that is doing extraordinary things in these extreme places. And literally the film that we created in the end took scenes from what we call Vaseline's front lines, these areas that have been hit by natural disasters, or refugee camps, and juxtaposed them with scenes from ordinary life. And so the product appears practically on every scene in the film, but very naturally, because it's juxtaposing how it's used in these extraordinary circumstances with the very ordinary circumstances in your life. And we found that that was really the best way to bring this story to life.
 - [Alan] And then how did Viola Davis get involved? Cause she's involved as well.

- [Kathleen] Yes, so at one point, together with the local team in the US, we said we can do a TV and print and digital campaign, or we could take some of that money and find a spokesperson who is interested in these kinds of causes and really fits naturally with it, and use our money there instead to draw attention to this. And that led us to Viola Davis, who is lovely to work with and a real believer, and such a passionate advocate for people who are forgotten, forgotten by traditional medical systems, who are underinsured or not insured at all. And so she's been a passionate advocate for the program here in the United States.

- [Alan] Was there anything about the campaign that surprised you?

- [Kathleen] A lot of things surprised me, but I wouldn't say ... it's not so much that was a surprise as more as kind of a delight. Strange word to use, delight, when you're talking about really difficult circumstances that people are living through, but delighted that our product really could make a difference. There was a moment when we had the idea. We'd done our exploratory interviews, and we sort of had this concept, and we started second-guessing ourselves internally. We started saying to ourselves, yeah, but it's just, you know, Vaseline Jelly at the end of the day. Are we making too big a deal out of this? And right about that time an article was published in the Washington Post by two dermatologists, American Dermatologists Dr. Jaber and Dr. Bandow, who had just returned from Jordan. They paid their own way to go and work in the refugee camps there. And they came back and they wrote an article, and in it they said, what Syrian doctors need most is Vaseline. Like, they actually named the brand. And they talked about all the same kinds of issues, very sort of ordinary, mundane things that we wouldn't think twice about, but when you don't have the right products to treat them, then they can turn into something much more dangerous. So if you're living in a refugee camp where it's crowded, you don't have access to clean water all the time, and maybe you're living exposed to the elements, then something like a simple cut can turn into, can get infected and turn into something that could even be life-threatening. So they wrote some of these stories in their article, and we immediately contacted them, found out more. They joined our advisory board, and, as they say, the rest is history, but that was kind of a stroke of luck for that to come along just at that moment, sort of external validation that we were onto something, and that gave us that extra boost of courage to move forward.

- [Alan] So how did the team play a role? I mean, there's a team behind you, research and all these
 - Absolutely

- [Alan] NGO partners as well.

- Yeah So one of the most critical things was finding the right partners. So we work with Direct Relief, which is probably the biggest international NGO that does disaster relief that you've never heard of, and the reason you've never heard of them is that they work with companies like us and take donations in kind. They work with all the big pharma companies. A lot of consumer products companies. They get transport donated by FedEx and Virgin Atlantic. They get their logistics software, which is the same software Unilever supply chain runs, they get it donated by SAP. So they work with us. They're not, they're behind the scenes. They're not out in front sort of marketing to consumers and accepting individual donations, but there's, because they know how to work with companies, because they do this, they track all their donations, and they have a network of clinics that they work with in over 70 countries and all 50 states. So, you know, when we heard they used all the right words, like when we heard they run SAP just the way we do, like, they're our partner. You know, they understand us. They get us, and they really know disaster relief. So we know that we're in good hands with them, and we have to take their advice, absolutely. This isn't our expertise. The other partners are our advisory board. So the first two dermatologists that I mentioned from the states, Dr. Bandow and Dr. Jaber joined our advisory board, and then Direct Relief also helped us identify dermatologists in South Africa, and India, and the UK, and even a dermatological nurse in Canada who joined our advisory board. And they help ensure that what we're doing is really making a positive impact, and that we're doing it in the most efficient and effective way possible. And our role then, on the team, is to stay flexible and open-minded, and when they give us advice that we need to change, that we need to flex. But then there's also huge, I mean that's on the program side, all the team. There's a huge team at Unilever involved in this, running the program itself, ensuring that product gets to Direct Relief on time, and developing the communications. So that's our agency partners, BBH, our PR agency Edelman, our comms planning partner, PHD, and without them we wouldn't have the campaign that we have, absolutely.

- [Alan] So winning an Effie is all about marketing effectiveness. So, how do you define marketing effectiveness?

- [Kathleen] It's a big question. So in the beginning what led to this ... You know, we're marketers at Unilever, and Unilever has our Unilever sustainable living plan. And so we have, definitely have the permission on any brand in Unilever to find a brand purpose, and make that the center of our communications and use that to drive the business. So we're encouraged to do that, but we're not mandated to do it. So back in the beginning we said, well we have this business objective on Vaseline. It's a brand that's 150 years old. As I already said before, you might have it in your bathroom somewhere and you've forgotten where it is, and you probably don't use it very often. And that's our business problem. We needed to remind the people who buy this product, who have it forgotten in their bathrooms, how to use it, when to use it, and make them proud to use it again. And when we looked at the examples of brands, in Unilever and outside, that have done this really well, examples like Dove come to mind, or Lifebuoy soap, another Uniler brand, and they've done it through communicating their brand purpose. So we set out on this mission to find what could we do that's worth talking about, that would get people to feel proud and fall in love with this brand again. So effective marketing finds that story, that relevant story that's gonna tap into the emotion that you want to elicit from the people who buy your products, and drive the business with it. And that's what this did. And I can give you one example of. A consumer we talked to in focus groups early on, and we showed the film. And afterwards, she said, that makes me want to take that little tub of Vaseline that's in my medicine cabinet and dig it out from the back and put it right in front so that I see it every day when I open my medicine cabinet. And we thought, we've got it. That's exactly the response we want. It made her feel proud to use this product. By putting it out in front it would remind her to use it every day, so driving consumption. But she felt somehow connected, through the stories we were telling, in her ordinary everyday life, to people living through really extraordinary circumstances halfway across the world. And that connecting ran right through our product. Couldn't ask for more effective marketing than that.

- [Alan] So you've reached a level of success in you career. Is there a moment in your life that defines who you've become?

- [Kathleen] I am sorry to disappoint you. There's no one moment. But there's certainly a lot of experiences along the way, a lot of moments and a lot of people, people who've influenced me, who've shaped me. And I guess it's easier for me to answer this question by turning it around and saying, what advice would I give to someone starting out in marketing, or in any job. And I would say, be curious, and say yes to new experiences. It might feel like a risk. Might be a bit scary, but the best things I've done are when I've said yes to trying something new, whether that's a new assignment or living abroad. I lived in London for eight years. I lived in Shanghai. Before joining Unilever I lived in Poland and Germany and France, and I love traveling. And those experiences of experiencing a new world were absolutely the best, and definitely have made me a different person. So an example, a recent example, of a sort of formative experience for me was ... The very first dermatological mission that we sponsored with the Vaseline healing project was back to Jordan. We sent Dr. Jaber and Dr. Bandow again. This time we sponsored it, and I got to go along as part of their crew. So here I am, a marketing director at Unilever with, you know, I'm a mother. I've got three young children at home, and I had the opportunity to step out of that ordinary existence and into this world of refugees, which is a very different world. And I don't know what I was expecting. This was before the news of the refugee crisis had hit the headlines. It was before refugees started flooding into Europe. It was March of 2015, so just a few months before. And while the crisis in Syria was four years old, I hadn't been paying that much attention to it. So I didn't expect to meet so many people who were just like me. Professionals, doctors, nurses, a dentist, a civil engineer. People who had literally locked their front door behind them and walked out of the country with their families and what they could carry to the relative safety of a refugee camp in Jordan. And I got to see first hand how our program could make an extraordinary difference in their lives. It meant to them that they weren't forgotten by the international community, and we were providing, really much needed medical care. And our product, as humble as it is, literally was helping people get back up on their feet. So when I said they walked across the border, that's desert. And so people arrived in the Al-Zaatari refugee camp having walked for a couple days in rubber sandals, and their feet were literally destroyed. And so our simple product really was urgently needed. And so I came back home again with those stories, and that renewed conviction that we were really onto something. And that gave me and the rest of the people I told these stories to the courage to really move forward quickly and make it happen. And we felt an obligation to tell these stories.

- [Alan] So earlier I asked, you know, this moment that may have changed your trajectory or made you who you are, and maybe you just had it.

- [Kathleen] Maybe I did, or maybe that moment helped me find who I am.

- [Alan] That's good. So, marketers are usually students of the business. And I'm curious, are there brands that you follow or take notice of, these days?

- [Kathleen] Yeah. So I just had the opportunity to go to the Sustainable Brands conference that was in Detroit. It was last week. This is an annual gathering, over 2000 people there, all kind of like-minded marketers trying to make the world a better place through their brands. And a couple brands stand out for me. One is, a Unilever brand, Ben and Jerry's. But the reason I say this stands out, and they were on the stage presenting last year at the Sustainable Brands conference. They make ice cream in order to enroll people in what their brand is about, and their brand is really, though it's great ice cream, their brand is really about climate justice and social and income inequality. Well, equality. And so they make really great ice cream, and so they try to further these causes with a nice ice cream cone and a little bit of humor. They're very light-hearted about it, and I love that. But baked into the business is the fact that the founders, Ben and Jerry, will go protest in Washington, and sometimes they get arrested. And that's actually part of the brand. That's important to communicate. Because this is what people at Ben and Jerry's care about. And so if any of Unilever's, you know, local market operations want to distribute Ben and Jerry's ice cream, they have to get on board with that. They have to make that part of the brand in their country, too. And if they're not okay with the Washington Post having a headline on the front page saying Ben and Jerry just got arrested, then they don't distribute Ben and Jerry's. And that is authentic marketing. That's authentic business.

- [Alan] So what do you see as the biggest opportunity for marketers today?

- [Kathleen] I think that, well, I know, and other people have researched this as well, that we are moved, we the human race, are moved by stories. And there's a book called The Storytelling Animal, by Jonathan Gottschall, and he talks about this, that we want to storify everything. And stories trump rational facts often. I think the best marketing is when the facts and the stories are aligned, pushing in the same direction. I would never use a story to contradict the facts, but the best marketing is when you've got a product truth, a fact, that you can tell in an emotional way with a great story, and the most powerful stories today, the ones that seem to be connecting the most with the people who buy our products, are the ones about purpose, the one's that take a stand. And so I think the future of marketing is brands that take a stand about something, especially in this social media age. If you don't take a stand, and people can be indifferent to you, you will find you have no followers. So I think the future is, you know, what's your story? Know your story, and stand on a mountaintop and proclaim your story.

- [Alan] What challenges do you think marketers face today?

- [Kathleen] Well that also has a really huge challenge. Cause when you take a stand, what happens if you piss off half your consumers?

- [Alan] Right.

- [Kathleen] But I think that we can take stands on issues in a positive way. We don't have to preach. I don't think we can preach. I think that's a turn off. And the danger is not doing anything. The danger is trying to be everything to all people, And being nothing special to anyone. There was a piece of research presented at the Sustainable Brands conference last week where ... It was done by GlobeScan, an international research company, and they identified this group of consumers that's growing that's called the aspirationals. It's 40% of the global public. And these are people who have very high environmental and social values, and at the same time love style, and love shopping, and want to be responsible consumers. And so they look to brands to be part of the solution. They expect the brands they buy to stand for something and to help them make a positive impact, and tackle the problems facing our planet and our society. And so these are the consumers of the future. They're already 40% of the public, and growing. Then brands that don't respond are gonna be in trouble. So I think we have to take a stand. It's what our business requires of us going forward, and I think it's the right thing to do.

- [Alan] Well, thank you so much for coming.

- [Kathleen] You're welcome. Thank you, a pleasure.

- [Alan] Marketing Today is brought to you by Atomck. Atomck focuses on unleashing the growth potential for clients we serve. Atomck is a strategic consultancy specializing in business, marketing, brand, and innovation. Our singular goal is to help you accelerate your efforts with the right mix of expertise, analysis and creativity. Check us out at A T O M C K dot com. Hi, it's Alan again. Marketing Today was created and produced by me, with project management by Sarah Williams, audio production by Erin Campbell, writing and editing by Kevin Greeley, social media support by Meghan Woods, art and graphic design by Sarah Delk. If you're new to Marketing Today, please feel free to write us a review on iTunes or your favorite listening platform. Don't forget to subscribe and tell your friends and colleagues about the show. We love to hear from listeners at I'm Alan Hart, and this is Marketing Today.


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