How Unilever is harnessing its brand and consumer know-how to tackle hygiene

By Adva Saldinger 15 October 2015

Hand-washing is one of the most cost effective public health interventions out there, but the challenge is convincing people to actually do it. Photo by: UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND

It’s one of the most cost effective public health interventions and it could prevent disease, death and also improve education outcomes, but the challenge for hand-washing is convincing people to actually do it. Unilever, a powerful global brand, is working both through its business and with partners to leverage the company’s skills to help tackle the issue, both because it will grow markets but also because there’s a clear moral case for doing so.

Water, sanitation and hygiene issues also impact other challenges including nutrition and education — clean water and improved sanitation can help reduce the hundreds of millions of days children miss of school due to diarrhea.

But often interventions in the WASH space have focused on improving infrastructure. India, for example, built many toilets, but without proper upkeep and education many sit unused and in disrepair.

Part of the challenge around behavior change is that it’s not just about improving knowledge, it’s about getting people to change their actions consistently. Consumer goods companies have a lot of experience thinking about and working to change behavior — it’s the way they convince a customer to purchase their product, after all. And it may well be why a company like Unilever can play a critical role.

Unilever’s Lifebuoy brand is perhaps one key example of how the company is weaving a social mission into the fabric of its business. The health soap has been around since 1894 and a social mission aimed at preventing illness has been ingrained in the brand since the start — it was initially developed to combat cholera.

Those working at Lifebuoy are not only measured against sales figures or market share, but also how they are tracking against its goal of improving the hand-washing behavior of 1 billion people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America by 2020. So far Lifebuoy has changed the behavior of 250 million, according to Kartik Chandrasekhar, Lifebuoy global brand vice president.

How it’s done

Unilever is working to address these issues both through individual commitments and through broader partnerships where they can play a role.

Lifebuoy’s behavior change program works with school children, and their mothers, to promote hand-washing with soap at five key moments in the day. The company has designed a set of five superheroes to help children remember the message and has partnered with governments, nongovernmental organizations, academic institutions, development banks and donors in the design and implementation of the program.

Clinical trials have shown that the 21-day program could lead to a 25 percent reduction in diarrhea and an improvement in school performance. The company may adapt the packaging or product to a specific market and might combine the in-school program with more traditional advertising like a commercial to help reinforce the messages.

Lifebuoy has also created a unique position to help oversee this work — a social mission director. Anila Gopal, who fills that post, sits as part of the core marketing team working on branding. Part of her job is convincing the business owners in the various countries to invest in the behavior change programs as part of their core business.

Unilever is also looking at new ways of bringing in innovative ideas and tackling these issues. Last month the company announced a partnership with U.K. Department for International Development and the Clinton Foundation’s Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership called Transform, which is designed to create jobs, increase incomes and improve the health and well-being of 100 million people in developing countries by 2025. The five-year, 10 million pound ($15.47 million) initiative will start with a focus on water, sanitation and hygiene and will aim to develop social business models that serve low-income households and contribute to the evidence base around behavior change.

A call for project proposals will be open through Unilever’s Foundry platform, which is being expanded to enable social entrepreneurs to engage and partner with the company. Potential businesses will be evaluated by a panel headed by an independent expert who will look for solid business proposals, with good teams that have the potential to scale.

The idea here is that DfID can help provide the initial support for entrepreneurs and innovators and Unilever can work with the best ideas to help bring them to scale.

What can be learned

There are several things businesses, especially big ones, do successfully. For example reaching scale even in far flung locations. Another — particularly for consumer goods companies — is knowing how to market a product and get customers to buy what they’re selling and remain loyal.

One key lesson, according to Gopal, is to keep it simple and “go relentlessly at that simple thing.” Trying to tackle a broad set of messages or motivations can be a distraction and may fall short of achieving long-term change.

The key is to determine what makes the behavior desirable — sometimes that means loss aversion is the strongest driver and peer pressure can play a positive role, Gopal said.

That’s part of the reason the Lifebuoy program centers its lessons around those five key times a day when people should wash their hands. And it’s something the development community can learn from, she said.

“In [the] development sector you look at things highly customized,” Gopal said. “Localizing is important, but what marketing does is tap into global insights.”

While it’s important to appeal to somewhat universal themes, which make it easier to scale a program, it also helps to be specific — an unbranded approach to behavior change programs hasn’t been as effective, she said.

That may raise eyebrows among some in the development community, but Unilever is sharing its model and information, in part through its participation in forums like the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing, where it was an early partner.

There will undoubtedly be more lessons — about scale, marketing and more — that will emerge as Unilever, Lifebuoy and their many partners continue to tackle these critical issues.

Why it matters

Unilever’s unique approach and strong leadership sets it up as a potential role model for others but the company is very clear about why it tackles hand washing and related issues.

“How can there be an enduring business in a failing society?” said Nitin Paranjpe, president of Unilever’s Home Care Business. “It’s easy to see how WASH is central to our business strategy.”

The company sells a variety of products that help clean clothes, homes and more; water is important to be able to use many of the products and improved hygiene practices means a bigger potential market. In simple terms, more toilets means more toilet cleaning product sales and more people who wash their hands with soap means a larger market for Lifebuoy sales.

That’s not to say that there isn’t also a moral case to be made. That’s certainly part of the equation, Paranjpe told Devex, but it’s important that the work is a critical part of the business strategy.

Part of that mission is also to pave the way for other companies to see how addressing critical social issues can be embedded in a business and help create new opportunity. And Unilever takes that leadership role seriously.

“Assume we meet the goals and no one else follows, [then] we would have failed because the world would not have changed,” Paranjpe concluded.

To read additional content on global health, go to Focus On: Global Health in partnership with Johnson & Johnson.

About the author

Adva Saldinger@AdvaSal

As a Devex Impact associate editor, Adva leads coverage of the intersection of business and international development. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, she enjoys exploring the role the private sector and private capital play in development. Previously, she has worked as a reporter at newspapers in both the U.S. and South Africa. Most recently, she has been ghostwriting a memoir for a former child slave and NGO founder in Ghana.

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