“The last time I checked,” writes activist investor Terry Smith, in his annual letter to clients of his Fundsmith Equity Fund, “soap was for washing”.
The observation forms part of a withering attack on Unilever, in which the £23bn fund has invested since inception, and which Smith now views as a corporation adrift, contriving to combine high ideals with low returns.
Last year it was Unilever’s Hellmann’s that stimulated Smith’s gift for ridicule, with its purpose of ‘fighting against food waste’. This time round it is Lux, Unilever’s global soap and bathing brand, which declares itself dedicated to ‘inspiring women to rise above everyday sexist judgements and express their beauty and femininity unapologetically’.
Smith does not believe that to be what a soap is for, and it’s hard to disagree with him. But if he really concludes that a bar’s utility is tethered to its basic hygiene function, then the last time he checked must have been somewhere around the 1880s, when soap, like most consumer goods, was a naked commodity – on which buyers very much took their chances.
Then brands came along and wrapped the bars in more ways than one. They wrapped them in iconography, consistency and reassurance – but also, little by little, in meaning that went way beyond function.
None more famously than Lux, which spent decades building a platform as ‘The soap of the stars’. This could be interpreted as rational reassurance – ‘If it’s good enough for her it must be good enough for me’ – but its deeper effect was the infusion of a little glamour into routine lives. In a small way, during or after a long day, it could imbue the user with a little more hedonic reward than a mere commodity might.
Hollywood stars from Ginger Rogers to Jane Fonda would mediate that hedonistic glamour. But not just Hollywood. Unilever simultaneously globalised and localised the format, so that stars from Bollywood, Indonesia and Latin America would radiate meaning into the bars and gels, and help carve out huge, high-profit shares in burgeoning, high-population markets. All for a product that gets instantly poured down the drain.
If Smith were to contrive that all Unilever’s brands got back to their core, literal purpose and nothing more, there would no longer be a Unilever to invest in. Because without the wrapper we loosely call ‘brand’, there is little profit in the underlying commodity.
Unilever’s touch, to endow what would otherwise be commodities with meaning and emotional relevance, was second to none for a century. What is a stock cube for? At base, it is for flavouring and thickening gravies and stews. But on Unilever’s watch, with Oxo, it became about the warmth and closeness of family life. The brand had a point of view about the relationship between food and family and, even when showing it how it is, with its torpor and tensions, made the human connection endearing. It might be just a brown, flaky, faintly aromatic cube, but you wanted to lean in.
Has Unilever lost that touch? If it has, it is not alone. Brand marketing teams, in their quest to go ever higher and bigger to force more meaning into their brands, are deliberately striding into controversies that certainly make you sit up, but these days make you want to lean away.
Ironically, one of Unilever’s own brands is to blame for that. Dove set a style of interpreting the cultural zeitgeist with its ‘Real beauty’ campaign back in 2004. But while the underlying point was serious – many women feel themselves not to be beautiful – you could still enjoy the celebration of those older, freckled faces and non-idealised body shapes. Dove went just far enough to be original but not so far as to become absurd.
Now, brand teams do not merely wish to ‘do a Dove’ but go further, dare bigger, take the narrative to an ever more contentious space. If Smith is at one extreme of the theory of brand, contemporary marketers now find themselves horribly exposed at the other – and modern-day Lux is where you end up, with its dispiriting language of personal ‘armour’ and societal ‘bombardment’.
Do I believe that brands should look for meaning that is bigger than the category and yet somehow still connected with it? I do and always have. It is the basis for distinction, scale and fame. Do I believe that meaning needs always to be grandiose, societal and challenging? For some brands – charities, movements, medicines – maybe. For everyday brands – chocolate, toiletries, teabags – the resulting loss of reward may never be repaid by the gain in notability.
My counsel to the marketers I work with is to take their time and not make a dash for the conceptual boundaries. The first step is to ensure that the substantive product itself is consistently superb – a basic at which we are not always faultless, as the horsemeat scandal of exactly a decade ago made plain. From there, the art is to wrap that product in distinctive, relevant meaning – you can call it a point of view or a purpose if you like – that makes consumers feel good about buying it, and employees, suppliers and vendors feel proud about being a part of it.
The last time I checked, that’s what a brand was for.