Unilever refocuses on design

Gazing from his office at giant, fluorescent graffiti murals splashed on to the front of Tate Modern in London, Unilever’s chief marketing officer Simon Clift muses on the growing emphasis on ‘gorgeous design’ at ‘this washing powder and margarine company’.

Based at Unilever House on the banks of the Thames at Blackfriars, Clift is responsible for guiding the overall direction of marketing at Unilever. He is cynical about the so-called downturn – ‘Inward-looking UK, US and European media won’t spook us,’ he says – full of assurances that marketing spend is on the up at Unilever, and happy that design is finally being prioritised at the €40bn (£32bn) multinational.

Last month, Clift, who joined Unilever in 1982, relinquished his role as group vice-president of personal care to lavish all his attention on the marketing role that he has held for the past three years. ‘We are now putting much more into the basics of achieving good design. We aim to make our design record catch up with our advertising record, as Unilever is the second most awarded advertiser after Adidas.’ He adds, ‘we would never have considered the importance of the weight of a bottle when designing products a few years ago, and now we do.’

Three years ago, a grand restructuring revolutionised the way that Unilever handles design. Prior to 2005, the company’s fragmented structure allowed its worldwide offices to commission wildly varying versions of its branding and packaging concepts.

But consolidation has reduced the scores of permutations on, for instance, skincare brand Pond’s products to just one design, by French design consultancy Crepuscule.

With no in-house design team, Unilever is entirely dependent on its roster of approximately 12 consultancies.

‘We disciplined – but did not reduce – the design roster during this restructure, and now work with about 12 consultancies on global design projects on a regular basis, from big groups like Wolff Olins, which is about more than just design, to boutique groups such as Blue Marlin – and passing through everything in between,’ says Clift.

Seymour Powell, Design Bridge and Coley Porter Bell also regularly pick up Unilever projects, but Clift claims that they do not sit on a particularly formal roster.

‘Unlike our more rigid advertising roster, we prefer not to limit creativity by working with just two or three design consultancies,’ says Clift.

Brand development is now overseen centrally before being applied globally, while local product lines such as Dove UK each look after their own promotional activities. Clift reckons that Unilever’s 400 worldwide brands generate thousands of individual design jobs every year.

But Clift is not in charge of design procurement. Instead, each of Unilever’s two dozen biggest-selling global brands is headed by a senior vicepresident, to whom this

responsibility falls. Two of its biggest brands, Dove and Knorr, are headed up by Brazilians Silvia Lagnado and Aline Santos respectively. Lagnado is based in the UK and Santos in Brazil. All the senior vicepresidents report to president of categories Vindi Banga.

Seymour Powell founder Richard Seymour’s involvement as design director on the Dove brand is well-documented, but he is now also consulting on the Lynx brand, as well as Vaseline and Knorr.

Along with placing designers in crucial strategic positions, Clift’s redoubled focus on marketing demonstrates a faith in design at Unilever that the company seems eager to promote, and willing and able to invest in.


• As Unilever’s first ever global chief marketing officer, Simon Clift is responsible for directing the company’s marketing across all categories. He is also responsible for the development of the Unilever company brand

• Clift joined Unilever in 1982 as a management trainee in marketing at UK personal care company Elida Gibbs January 2001 – Unilever establishes its global home and personal care division, appointing Clift as president of marketing 
April 2001 – Clift is appointed as group vice-president of personal care
June 2008 – Clift leaves this post to focus full time on his marketing position

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