Born on Human Rights Day: Unilever's Aline Santos Was an Activist at Birth

By Thought Leaders Archives
Cover image for  article: Born on Human Rights Day: Unilever's Aline Santos Was an Activist at Birth

Aline Santos, EVP Global Marketing and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Unilever, was born on the global Human Rights Day. Santos's mother used to tell her, "You were born with this attitude of activism," and it never left her. She shared her perspective on the importance and value of brand purpose with MediaVillage's Jack Myers in a Jack Myers Leadership Conversation, now available for viewing on-demand.

Throughout the conversation with Myers, Santos consistently returned to the theme of action and "walking the walk." Santos believes that advocating for a greater purpose isn't enough. "The combination of advocacy and action is where consumers look at you and say, 'I trust you.'"

Born and raised in Brazil, she said she was pushing for new approaches to marketing from the start of her career. She noticed that with skincare products, for example, most of Brazil's population was comprised of people of color, yet there weren't any products designed for the black community. She got management buy-in to launch a new line of products that also featured black women in the ads. "It was tailor made with love and care for the black community," she said of the pioneering endeavor.

Developing products and ads for underrepresented segments of the population sharpened her focus on breaking stereotypes. In 2017, Unilever launched the Unstereotype Alliance during the 2017 Cannes Lions with a mission "to eradicate outdated stereotypes in advertising." Launch partners included UN Women from the United Nations, Mars, J&J, WPP, IPG, Google, and Microsoft. This came a year after Santos shepherded Unilever's own Unstereotype Initiative.

"When we work together as an industry, we can really shape culture in a different way," said Santos. "Every time that we are choosing a script, we are choosing how we want to shape culture. It's very important that we have this consciousness." She said about Unstereotype Alliance members, "Every time they are choosing a script, they are choosing to unstereotype. The great news is that every time you do that, it is not only good for society but good for the business. We have 37% more brand impact every time that we have advertising that is free from stereotypes, and we have 28% more purchase intent."

For brands and corporations that have lacked a sense of purpose, there is plenty that can be done now. Such brands need to be careful though, says Santos; "Before you start shouting, do something, Our brands can really talk about Black Lives Matter and COVID-19 because they have been doing this for many, many years." Now is the time to bolster one's corporate citizenship credentials. "This is the right moment for you to start acting and doing something about it, quietly in your corner gaining not only experience but also trust and credibility from consumers. You have a responsibility as a business to do more," she added. "You can only work toward that if you are clear about what your purpose is related to the category you are working on and your brand heritage."

That connection to the heritage must stay true to the brand promise. "If it is not authentic, don't even go there because consumers can smell it. They are going to be very negative about your brand. You have to do it in an authentic way, and I think we have done that with Dove." With Unilever, it's impossible to talk about brand purpose without exploring Dove's work. But the campaign has a much older brand purpose than most people appreciate.

"Although everybody talks about Dove and the real beauty campaign as the starting point for talking about real people, that actually started around the 50s," said Santos. "We continue to march in that direction, and it is unstoppable. The growth of this brand is incredible. It's 69% higher than other brands that don't have a greater purpose. And the benefits to society are the most important thing the brand has been doing over the years."

One recent manifestation of its purpose is Dove's "Courage is Beautiful" spot featuring front-line Covid-19 workers whose mask-marked faces hardly make them look like models, yet their faces are all the more arresting. As far as backing that up with action, Dove has donated more than $5 million globally to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and supplies to healthcare workers and other vulnerable groups.

Brands reap the benefits of embracing their purpose in various ways, one of the most important being the talent they attract. With Generation Z, Santos noted, "This comes back to purpose and values. We know that younger generations are choosing who they work for. Having a clear purpose and a strong set of values with diversity inclusion at the heart of it is vital to attract the right talent and to keep the talent in your company."

Focusing on purpose also changes how brands create content. Santos said, "Our purpose liberates us to create content in a completely different way. It becomes much more relevant to consumers who want to consume our content. When you have purpose in a brand, there's much more that you can talk to your consumers about."

Santos remains optimistic about how brands are evolving and the role they play. "We not only have to take care of our own business, but we have to take care of people. We have to take care of society. We have to take care of the planet. We have the opportunity to make this industry an industry that is a force for good."

"This is a program that is never ending," she added. "There's always lots to be done."

Also read:
How Unilever Prepared for Right Now: Aline Santos on Brand Activism by Phil McKenzie

Branding with a Purpose. A Leadership Conversation with Unilever's Aline Santos by Charlene Weisler

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