THE BLOG

Unilever Takes Content a Step Further

17/03/2014 10:32 GMT | Updated 14/05/2014 10:59 BST

At first sight, Unilever and The Guardian look like an unlikely pair of bedfellows; the former is a giant multinational and the latter is a left-leaning, independent-minded UK newspaper publisher.

So the news that the pair last month signed 'a seven-figure' deal, under which Unilever has signed up as sponsor for The Guardian's Sustainable Business section and for whom the publisher's Guardian Labs unit will produce branded content for it around that theme, might come as a bit of a surprise, but the pair is better matched than you might think.

For Unilever, innovation around its product portfolio is limited and incremental, but what it can do at a faster pace is to innovate around its marketing.

In recent years it has, especially in content. You might think content around household products is difficult, but the Dove Real Beauty campaign proves that it is not only possible, but that it can significantly add to the brand's value.

Inspired by that, Unilever has taken content-led marketing into other product areas. All Things Hair, for example, acts as an umbrella YouTube channel for Unilever's various hair care brands, featuring well-known video bloggers who create content around tips and styles.

This is all well and good for promoting individual brands, but Unilever also has a larger purpose - its corporate sustainability mission. You can be as cynical as you like about it, but there is no doubt that Unilever is throwing a lot of resource at it and once a corporation publicly embarks on a mission to be sustainable, you can't pull back or change horses midstream without a significant loss of credibility, both with consumers and lobby groups.

However, Unilever faces two challenges in order to demonstrate its sustainability credentials. One is to let the world know what it is doing - it needs is a distribution mechanism. As Hamish Priest, Unilever's global media innovation manager, told a conference last month, "making expensive content that no-one sees is like building cathedrals in the desert. We have to consider distribution as important as the creative development."

And that is exactly what it has bought with The Guardian. As the paper points out, two thirds 40m-plus global traffic is from outside the UK, and it is especially big in the US and amongst English-language speakers in the emerging world, two of the key audiences for Unilever's sustainability message, making The Guardian a straight-forward choice.

The second challenge is credibility. Again, this is where The Guardian steps in, both in terms of the actual content production - the content will be produced by journalists on the Lab's 130-strong team - and as host.

Like Unilever, The Guardian also has a clear corporate and editorial commitment to sustainability, so there is a clear affinity between the two.

At least that is the plan. All content requires relevance and credibility, but none more so than in the sphere of sustainability, where every word, picture or video will be picked over by the likes of Greenpeace and other NGOs.

No doubt Unilever could produce its own content on sustainability - and it does - but it would lack the journalistic rigour and sensibility the Guardian Lab team should bring. You can see the first fruits of the deal here.

It's interesting for a number of reasons: it's fairly low-key, but Unilever's presence is clearly marked; it is a traditional diet of feature-led content and video; and it is more or less neutral. Its role is to mark out Unilever's territory as a corporation concerned about, and active in, its own contribution to sustainability.

What it isn't - at least in my opinion - is native advertising. I'd define native advertising as branded content that blends more or less seamlessly with straightforward editorial, with a tendency to ambush the reader. This, by contrast, is self-contained and while it will no doubt be pushed out, isn't likely to be found other than by readers with a specific interest. And if, by some chance, it is, then it is clearly labelled as an 'advertisement feature'.

I don't doubt that there will be moments when The Guardian will have to demonstrate its editorial independence as and when Unilever's sustainability credentials are challenged.

Unilever too will be acutely aware of this issue, but its willingness to put its head in the lion's den is an indication of its commitment and its credibility.

Dominic Mills is consultant editor of The Content Marketing Association