Sustainable Partnerships: Q&A with Keith Weed, CMO of Unilever – Women Deliver

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September 25, 2018 Keith Weed, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Unilever

Sustainable Partnerships: Q&A with Keith Weed, CMO of Unilever


The introduction of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) created a new opportunity for stakeholders working across sectors, issue areas, and geographies to break down traditional siloed approaches and work together to create transformational change for girls, women, and gender equality. By encouraging collaboration between “unusual suspects,” partnerships can accelerate progress benefiting all – including those in the private sector with customers, investors, and a bottom line.

Unilever has prioritized strategic partnerships across its brands including through the Unstereotype Alliance which aims to tackle how the marketing/advertising industry can affect positive cultural change for equality, diversity, and inclusion by using the power of advertising to help shape perceptions that reflect realistic, non-biased portrayals of women and men. Led by UN Women, the Unstereotype Alliance unites leaders from across business, technology and creative industries to tackle the prevalence of stereotypes that are often perpetuated through advertising and media content.

This month, Katja Iversen, President/CEO of Women Deliver spoke with Keith Weed, the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Unilever, to learn about the company’s commitment to leveraging strategic partnerships to advance gender equality. As the Deliver for Good campaign explores the steps to building sustainable partnerships for girls and women, Keith provides an invaluable perspective on the role of the private sector in engaging partnerships that deliver on profit and purpose.

Katja Iversen: From tech companies and startups to United Nations agencies and other private sector companies, Unilever has a history of investing in cross sector partnerships with purpose. In fact, the company exclaims that “global partnerships are a vital component of our business model.” At the same time, Unilever has increased its focus on gender balance with a strong gender equality strategy and a commitment to increase the representation of women in senior leadership positions to 50/50. Why has Unilever prioritized gender equality and how do cross-sector partnerships like the Unstereotype Alliance help to advance that commitment on a larger scale?

Keith Weed: At Unilever, we believe that women’s empowerment is the single most effective catalyst to unlock progress in human development and economic growth – and that changing the norms and stereotypes that hold women back will enable society and our business to transform for the better. For example, 70% of people making decisions to buy Unilever brands are women, so there’s not just a moral case behind gender equality but a strong economic case too.

We’re also one of the world’s largest advertisers and we recognise the impact, and therefore great responsibility we have when it comes to the portrayal of gender norms around the world. That’s why back in 2016, we took a close look at thousands of ads globally across multiple different categories and found some truly shocking results:

  • 40% of women do not relate at all to the women they see in adverts
  • Just 3% of industry advertising featured women in leadership roles
  • 2% show women as intelligent
  • And only 1% portray women to have a sense of humour

Now that’s certainly not a representative of any women I know! So, we decided to act. First on our own advertising, launching Unstereotype as a company-wide commitment to advance portrayals of people in our ads, especially of women, to be more relevant to our consumers and better for business and society.

And last year we co-convened the Unstereotype Alliance with UN Women and 24 of the world’s largest, advertisers, advertising agencies and publishers to use our collective power to advance gender equality. Together this group not only hold the largest marketing budgets in the world, but also have a wealth of complementary skills which when combined, can be the key to unlocking real progress.


Katja Iversen: One of the pillars of the Deliver for Good campaign focuses on shifting the narrative around girls and women from victims and vulnerable to powerful agents of change. We know this is a similar goal of the Unstereotype Alliance which aims to drive a transformational shift in global advertising – an industry estimated to spend over $557 billion in 2018. In your opinion, what role does advertising and marketing play in changing the narrative around girls and women and in advancing gender equality more broadly?

Keith Weed: Advertising and marketing play a valuable and critical one. Every day, billions of people around the world are exposed to the communications our industry creates. That influence can either be used to reinforce negative stereotypes or to set new standards of empowerment and equality.

But this is not just about removing stereotypes that diminish or limit the role of women and men, it’s also about strengthening the representation of people from different groups that are often rendered invisible by our industry. We need to reflect a more inclusive society and diversity in age, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation, personal backgrounds.

A great example I’m very proud of is Dove Men+Care’s ‘Helping Dads Care’ Report – a ground-breaking study to understand attitudes and perceptions regarding paternity leave. The report uncovered that many men globally are not taking paternity leave as there is limited access to paid paternity leave and/or traditional stereotypes of masculinity are prevailing in their societies. So internally, we decided to launch Unilever’s new Global Paternity Leave Standard which introduces three weeks of fully paid paternity leave as a benefit for employees all over the world. Advertising and marketing are tools that we can use to raise awareness of stereotypes that are holding us back.


Katja Iversen: The Unstereotype Alliance has united more than 20 companies including Google, Facebook, Twitter, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and many others. This impressive roster includes companies that are often seen as competitors and would rarely come to the table together. How has the Unstereotype Alliance been able to successfully bring in so many stakeholders working across sectors to focus on a common goal?

Keith Weed: The Alliance is led by UN Women and has a clear mission statement and set of principles that unite members through shared values and goals. We’re focused on empowering people in all their diversity (gender, race, class, age, ability, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, language, education, etc.) and addressing harmful portrayals to help create a gender equal world. But it’s clear to us all that we can only reach this goal if we put competition aside for the greater societal importance and broader cultural impact of this agenda.


Katja Iversen: Before the Unstereotype Alliance was launched, Unilever did an analysis of advertisements and found that only 3% of the time, women were showed in a leadership position, 2% of the time, they were seen as being obviously intelligent, 1% of the time, they were shown having a sense of humor.  Now, your research has shown that the progressive, unstereotype ads showing women in leadership roles are 25% more effective than those showing women in secondary positions. This speaks to your comment that “this isn’t just a moral issue, it’s an economic issue.” What is the business case for companies to invest in unstereotyping and for joining a large-scale partnership with a purpose?

Keith Weed: Let’s begin by remembering why it’s so important to be a sustainable business. It’s not just because it’s the right and moral thing to do and it makes us feel good. As true as those things are, it’s because at Unilever, we know that a sustainable business model is proven to be financially robust.

And as I’ve said before, the economic case for Unstereotype is getting even stronger. We know from testing our ads over the past two years that progressive advertising creates 25% more branded impact and new data now tells us that progressive ads are also 16% more relevant, 21% more credible and can drive purchase intent by 18%.

Our brands are reporting the business case for change too. Take Brooke Bond Red Label, one of our tea brands, its brand communications model helps tackle social taboos and societal barriers locally by starting a conversation on a controversial topic over a cup of tea. For example, in India, they created ‘6-Pack’, India’s first transgender band spreading the message of inclusiveness and encouraging people to become more accepting, break barriers and bond over a cup of tea. The countries that have adopted the new brand communications model are growing 3X faster than those who are yet to adopt.

Katja Iversen: Beyond the Unstereotype Alliance, Unilever is building partnerships with NGOs and other stakeholders who share a common vision of a sustainable future. Based on your experience at Unilever and in driving collaboration across sectors, what are the most important elements of partnerships that help create a healthy business and a healthy society? 

Keith Weed: To deliver the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda entire systems need to change. To achieve Gender Equality (SDG5) the system needs to transform. This transformational change can only be achieved through collective action/partnerships addressing the barriers that women are facing to participate in social, political and economic life. Acting upon this understanding is the pre-requisite of a healthy business and society. And as I always say you can’t have a healthy business in an unhealthy society.

Every organisation needs to understand where they can contribute most to the systemic change required. Our business for example can help to change consumer behavior and challenge social norms to influence the patterns that discriminate through our marketing. We also source tea from millions of small holder farmers, many of whom are women and so have partnered with UN Women to create a global violence prevention framework to advance implementation of human rights of our extended value chain.

We can use our scale and size as powerful entry point to create systemic change within our extended value chain but to make progress outside of Unilever, it’s clear we cannot do that alone. Partnerships enable organisations to utilize their complimentary skills collectively to unlock real progress. Which is also why we believe partnerships are core to achieving Unilever’s vision “To make sustainable living common place.”

Katja Iversen: From urging tech platforms to better combat divisive content, hate speech and fake news to calling on advertising giants to join the Unstereotype Alliance, you have a history of nudging brands to make bolder commitments and to take more aggressive action to improve the world and drive business growth. How did you personally become invested in promoting partnerships that advance gender equality and sustainable development more broadly?

Keith Weed: Back in 2010 when I became CMO, one of the first things I did was close down our Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR department, to mainstream sustainability; making it not just a department’s responsibility but everyone’s responsibility. It was also the same year we created the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan to decouple our growth from our environmental footprint, while increasing our positive societal impact. Our plan has three big goals to achieve underpinned by 50-time based commitments and targets spanning our social, environmental and economic performance across the value chain. Since 2010, partnerships have always been essential in making progress, so the power of partnerships is clear.

And one of our commitments is ‘Opportunities for Women’ which aims to empower 5 million women across our value chain by 2020. We believe that women’s empowerment is the single greatest enabler of human development and economic growth. We are building a gender balanced organisation: by the end of 2017, 47% of total management were women, up from 46% in 2016. We are also promoting safety for women by working with UN Women in Assam, India and through Shakti, our door to door selling operation in India which is providing work for over 70,000 women in low-income rural communities. In 2017 we also enabled 1.2 million women access to initiatives aiming to promote their safety, develop their skills and expand their opportunities.

We know our impact can be even greater if we could help challenge harmful norms and stereotypes in society at large to unlock women’s potential and one way we can do that is through our advertising. Partnerships like the Unstereotype Alliance accelerate this thinking across the industry and society.

Katja Iversen: As world leaders and private sector executives head to NY for the United Nations General Assembly, what is your primary call to action to advance gender equality?

Keith Weed: SDG 17 exists for a reason. Partnerships may be hard work, but they have the potential to change how the system works for women. Whole system change will ultimately be more sustainable than partial fixes. Tough to do but necessary.

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