Are Unilever's brands fit for the future?

The Future Laboratory has identified the factors it thinks make companies last. Does the consumer goods giant fit the bill?

by Tracey Follows
Last Updated: 25 Jan 2017

Unilever, the consumer goods giant behind brands as diverse as Dove, PG Tips and Marmite, talks a lot about sustainability. Among companies of its size, the British-Dutch business is a genuine trailblazer for all things environmental, responsible and ethical. But what makes a company stand the test of time, and is Unilever’s lauded Sustainable Living Plan enough to see it through the challenges ahead?

The Future Laboratory has identified six key behaviours that make a business ‘fit for the future’. Working with The Effectiveness Partnership we quantified these and used them to create the Future Fit Index, a ranking of the most popular brands in the UK. The top spot goes to Nike, while Google, Microsoft, Jaguar and Land Rover also did well (you can see the full table below). But of the top 100 ranked brands, no fewer than nineteen belong to Unilever.

Why does Unilever do so well? Taking the behaviours in turn, the company’s brands score especially well on Brand Stretch, which comes from a combination of high brand consideration, high corporate reputation scores and high social media metrics for individual brands. On the one hand, social media can feel superficial, but if brands have a big following, they are often creating a successful community as well as a successful category – a community that can permit a brand to stretch into adjacent categories or create less obvious partnerships in the future.

Unilever also scores very highly for Conscious Business, a good indicator of how a brand will exist in a sustainable future as well as its core ethical values. The company discloses its environmental impacts through the Global Reporting Initiative. Not all businesses report to the GRI standard, including many 21st-century brands such as Apple and Amazon. Our research suggests that the very fact that a company is transparent enough to disclose these facts is as important as the content itself. It’s the behaviour that builds trust, and as radical transparency is increasingly demanded and expected by consumers it’s a behaviour that brands will have to adopt regardless of how big they are today.

Unilever ranks among the very highest on Thriving Employees but less well on Innovation. Unilever demonstrates leadership in both behaviours with the recent call for ‘unstereotyping’. ‘We are on a journey to achieve ‘unstereotyped’ mindsets inside and outside our company,’ explains Unilever CEO Paul Polman. Stereotyping obstructs equality and thwarts innovation, and Unilever understands that undoing the stereotype is a key part of future fitness from innovation. However, that’s no substitute for a low percentage of turnover that comes from new-to-market innovation across the sector – or having a Chief Innovation Officer. 

Let’s turn to Long-term Planning and Agility. Planning for the long term is incredibly important for future fitness. If companies are thinking about the future and actively planning for it they are likely to talk about it in their annual reports and statements, and in releases to their shareholders.

Unilever brands talk a lot less about their future consumers than Vodafone or BT but a lot more about them than Apple or Facebook. How many technology brands pop out from nowhere but 15 years later disappear back into obscurity? It takes a well-articulated long-term vision of the future to ensure you are still going to be around then – even if you are Apple or Facebook.

Agility, as measured by the index, is a challenge for Unilever. When all is said and done you can have the greatest ideas in the world, but if you do not have practical steps to execute those ideas you cannot bring about change or evolve your products and services to meet the future. Much of future fitness comes down to financial fitness.

Liquidity is a simple way of measuring whether a company will be able to seize opportunities, enabling it to cover its short-term responsibilities while simultaneously taking on new ones. Investment is another key indicator of whether a business is open to forthcoming changes or able to create change that brings growth – a company that invests in and identifies opportunities, and is willing to bet on them. Our data shows that Unilever’s score on this is half that of Nike and Google. This is perhaps something for Unilever to consider for the future if it wants to increase its overall future fitness, and reach that number one spot.

Tracey Follows is chief strategy and innovation officer at futures consultancy The Future Laboratory

Image source: James Cridland/Flickr


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