Unilever: two and a half cheers for a purpose-led organisation


Pic c/o mccanexposure.com

Was lucky enough to be sitting in the audience for yesterday's webcast at Unilever's HQ to hear UL CEO Paul Polman (and some others) talk about their Sustainable Living plan 

As regular readers will know, we've been talking purpose here for a decade or more (as my buddy Hugh reiterated recently), long before it became popular (in churches, business schools or in blogs and coaches or consultants who have drunk the coolaid, too). For a long time, senior (aka "sensible") business folk have treated this notion as if it were for the Fancy Dans of this world – the kooky and the crazy.

So it was genuinely affecting to hear the leader of the world's second biggest advertiser talking about their social purpose as the only way to growth – not as a risk or a by-product but the thing the whole organisation has to focus on – and to see the leadership trying to work with organisations that know more about the impacts it makes on the world than it does.

You'll know – for good or ill – the Dove story as one of Unilever's previous attempts to embrace purpose, but this is genuinely something different. The level of senior engagement with this, the degree to which they've made it structurally possible to travel this way and – once more – the clarity and conviction of the leader's voice made this more than a step change. And the acknowledgement that there is a long way to travel before the real benefits are clear to all was remarkably refreshing and honest. 

I think this is a genuinely bold move and one which, whatever false steps they take (and they will take them), we should credit the corporation and its leaders with.

However, I was slightly disappointed to read the 5 levers for change document they have produced. Like so many other behaviour change manuals, it is still primarily construes behaviour as an "I thing", an individual phenomenon; still imagines that what we do to individuals is what matters in shaping their behaviour; still focuses on the "p" and not the "q" of diffusion. 

As for the calls from NGOs on the panel and in the audience – however admirable and amazing the people were – who want us to "make conscious choices", the less said the better. If our future depends on getting people to think, we're really screwed.

Looks like we still have work to do here…I'm ready.


  1. @mikeriddell62
    November 28, 2011

    People will think differently if incentivised to do so.
    So don’t be so dismissive đŸ™‚
    Imagine a local economy which encouraged organisations to share back end functions so that operational costs could be taken off their P & L. Imagine that these organisations began to function as a single organisation, treating members to discounts and other incentives funded by the savings made. Imagine these discounts and incentives were only ever issued in return for members contributing something positive to their community, like volunteering.
    How would you feel being part of that community. Would it make you think differently if everyone around you began to think and do things differently?
    If you can record this contribution then you can measure it. If you can measure it and assign it to an individual then arguably businesses and other institutions might wish to reward that individual with excess or spare capacity (seats on buses for example) for setting the right example.
    Community currencies which are only ever issued for contribution to community would go along way to speeding up behaviour change. It just needs to be systemised before the claim can be made that a replacement to GDP has been found.

  2. Jaclyn Moll
    December 9, 2011

    Jaclyn Moll

    Thanks-a-mundo for the blog article.Really thank you! Really Cool.