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When Advertising Becomes the Show: Q&A with Unilever's Rob Master

October 22, 2010

In the age of viral videos, advertisers sometimes call what they create “content.” That may be justified in the case of Unilever, the London-based consumer products giant. A few years back, “Evolution,” a one-minute video by Dove fast-forwarding the transformation of a girl into a model, became one of the first ads to spread to tens of millions of people through social media. A recent consumer survey from ExactTarget named Dove and its Campaign for Real Beauty among the five favorite brands on Facebook (along with iTunes, Oreo, Victoria’s Secret, and Wal-Mart). Meanwhile, Unilever’s Axe brand has a decidedly different message. Most famously, when its “Chocolate Man” video for body spray went viral, it promised to convince millions of guys that using the spray would make them as irresistible to women as a fudge sundae. Earlier this year, Unilever revealed that it is doubling its spending on digital marketing globally. To find out more about its digital media strategy, Technology Review spoke with Rob Master, Unilever’s North American media director.

Chocolate mad man: Unilever’s Axe ads spoofing male fantasies (top) have gone viral, resulting in tens of millions of video views across the Web. Unilever media director Rob Master (bottom) says, “We’re living through a modern-day Mad Men.”

TR: You’re stepping up your spending on digital media. What’s driving your efforts?

RM: Consumers are going through a radical transformation in how they interact with media and how they connect with brands and advertising. We look through the eyes of the consumer. The consumer doesn’t think about having a viewing strategy for traditional, offline media and a viewing strategy for online media. They view the world in a certain way, and what we’re trying to do is mirror that.

TR: What is your strategy for reaching consumers via social media? For instance, what accounts for Dove’s popularity on Facebook?

RM: We don’t have eight million fans on Dove’s Facebook page. What we do have is really engaged and passionate fans, and that’s really the focus of our strategy in the social space. It’s about providing an enriching experience with our content, not about getting as many people as possible to sign up so we can give away coupons.

TR: When you look at a brand like Dove, how important is it to create a brand personality?

RM: The Campaign for Real Beauty embodies what the brand stands for. That’s the core focus of the brand. It’s about self-esteem, about having conversations among mothers and fathers and daughters, and having conversations about the [advertising] industry itself and how it depicts women.

TR: Let’s jump to another one of your brands, Axe. That has a completely different message and personality. How would you describe it?

RM: Axe is all about helping guys in the mating game, bringing that vitality to life with a wink and a smile. We launched the brand in North America as a body spray. If you think about it, growing up, there was no body spray. We created an entire new category.

TR: If you look at Axe versus Dove, they seem to be saying different things about women.

RM: Each brand has its own audience.

TR: Do you plan ahead to make videos that go viral?

RM: We use the word “viral” very carefully around here. Consumers decide what’s viral. We brief our agencies for a great piece of content that’s engaging and delivers our brand message. Consumers will decide if they want to forward that along.

TR: Does having viral videos reduce the need for spending to get your ads viewed?

RM: We have a syndication strategy. All of our brands have their own websites. But our real focus is to go where consumers are, to disseminate the ad to where the guys who like Axe are already going. We’re not spending money to drive guys to a certain place, but to connect where they already are.

TR: Is that what you mean by your term “superdistribution”?

RM: Superdistribution is taking a great piece of content and syndicating it. You can see our video on the Yahoo home page and never leave that site.

TR: How do you measure ROI across these new forms of media? How do you measure whether your investment is having a payback?

RM: We’re more rigorous in our analysis. We use the Nielsen Marketing Mix model to be more focused on better capturing the impact of digital. With Mindshare, our media agency, we make sure that every piece of digital creative, including iPhone and Yahoo, is tagged. We go in with a clear understanding of the objective. Does it drive video views? Does it drive coupons, or samples? Do we need to change the creative because it’s not engaging? Or do we need to double down on this creative because it’s crushing? We can optimize in real time as we go.

TR: What’s your view of advertising on mobile platforms like the iPhone and iPad?

RM: We were one of the inaugural sponsors on the iPad, with Time magazine. The difference is that part of the experience is your finger interacting with the screen. We talk about how long consumers are engaging with our brands, and the iPad is a much more engaging device. With the iPhone, our Dove Men Plus Care campaign created a rich experience around baseball stars such as Andy Pettitte and Albert Pujols. We showed their homes, we showed their playlist on iTunes. What’s interesting is that 20 percent of the guys who engage with the iPhone ads are coming back for a second experience.

TR: So consumers are spending more and more time with screens throughout the day. Where is this all going?

RM: We don’t know. We’re trying to create what we call a canvas of content. It’s not just about 30-second spots or home page takeover ads, but about taking your idea and rolling it out to the multiple screens that exist now. There’s never been a more exciting time to be in marketing or media than today. We’re living through a modern-day Mad Men. People call that show the glory days of advertising. I actually think this is the most extraordinary time.

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