You have worked for three big brand machines – Unilever, P&G and Nestlé. How can you flood the world with ads and still call for ‘mindful consumption,’ particularly in emerging markets?
It is always in the eye of beholder. I travel the whole world, and I see over and over that when brands can compete freely, choice is created and consumers are better off … I often hear that if we are consuming so much, why are we selling cars to poor people in Africa, and why should the Chinese drive? That is about the most arrogant argument I’ve heard.
Consumers will self-select companies that provide responsible products and operate responsibly. Consumers want to know how you treat people in the whole value chain, or if the products are sustainably sourced. With the help of technology, consumers can see these things right away, and bad behaviour gets punished more quickly.
But don’t customers buy on the basis of price and value?
That is absolutely not true. Certainly, it is Economics 101 at the entry point. If Lipton tea doesn’t taste good or is too expensive, you are not going to buy it. But after that, other factors start kicking in – such as the fact we have carbon-neutral tea plantations, and we treat people fairly.
We have, for example, 75,000 smallhold tea farmers who work for us. Finally their children can go to school, rather than work in the tea business, and we give the farmers soil-management training. Their yield is 20- to 40-per-cent higher, and we get a sustainable supply of tea. A lot of people get confused and say at that very high level, that consumers aren’t willing to pay [for these things]. It is a meaningless discussion. What you see is a greater awareness by consumers of what they want to buy.
Title: Chief executive officer, Unilever NV, Amsterdam/London.
Born: The Netherlands, July 11, 1956.
Bachelor’s degree, University of Groningen, Netherlands.
MA in economics and MBA, University of Cincinnati.
Began career at Procter & Gamble Co. in 1979, holding many senior executive positions.
Moved to Nestlé SA in 2005, where he was chief financial officer and executive vice-president, the Americas.
Became Unilever CEO on Jan. 1, 2009.