Unilever, a multinational consumer goods corporation whose mission is to “make sustainable living commonplace,” is well known for its CSR initiatives. Through its many brands, which include Lipton, Dove, Breyers, Hellman’s, Axe and Vaseline, Unilever drives CSR initiatives that focus on causes like getting kids to play outside, building self-esteem for women and girls, sustainable farming, increasing access to employment, improving global sanitation habits and supporting female entrepreneurs.

In this Q&A, Sharon MacLeod, Former Global Brand Vice President, Dove Men+Care at Unilever, discusses her experience driving purpose-led campaigns, shares tips for finding a brand’s purpose and explains the coming evolution of CSR to purpose-led brands.

What does CSR look like today?

We are increasingly seeing consumers expecting – and loving it when – companies act more responsibly and support initiatives that are important to consumers. The flipside to that expectation, however, is that brands are also being increasingly criticized for jumping onto the bandwagon simply because a cause is trending.

10 years ago, a brand could simply start supporting a cause – credibility wasn’t as big an issue. Nowadays, consumers are more critical and want brands to actually “talk the walk” and demonstrate a credible track record before joining a conversation or trying to sell its brand through a cause.

Where is CSR going next?

In my opinion, we’ll soon see CSR, where companies make money and give it to important causes, become somewhat of an outdated concept. Now, I don’t want to discredit companies that are currently executing CSR strategies, because they are doing great, important and impactful work. But I believe the cutting-edge way of doing business is to embed corporate social responsibility – and purpose – inside everything that a company or brand does.

Let me give you an example. Say a financial services company decides to create a fund that supports companies owned and operated by diverse leadership and another fund that supports companies that are environmentally-minded. While these initiatives are strategic and where some people want to make their investments, it is far more impactful if the financial services company itself supports diverse talent or environmental initiatives within its own company.

I believe we’ll start to see companies think more closely about the purpose of their business and how they weave that into every aspect of how they behave and operate as a company. In other words, I think we’ll see start to see more and more companies evolve their CSR strategies into becoming a purpose-led company.

How can brands find the purpose that is right for them?

Determining the right purpose-led strategy for a brand is difficult work. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of smart people working together to determine the right initiatives for the brand, the company that owns the brand and consumers.

Your strategy, of course, must be financially viable. The right purpose will drive business outcomes and ultimately reach that higher purpose.

The most important thing when determining a brand’s strategic purpose, however, is authenticity – you can’t just glob on to a trend. You have to look at what the brand has stood for in the past and what the brand will stand for in the future. Any purpose – and resulting initiatives – must genuinely come from what the brand says, does and (ideally) sells.

What is your own personal experience with purpose-led brands?

I’ve always been passionate about using the skills and knowledge I have for a greater purpose. When I first started my career, however, purpose-led brands or careers didn’t really exist – most companies didn’t even have CSR initiatives in place. Luckily, I came across my purpose early in my career when I had the opportunity to launch Dove’s campaign for Real Beauty and the Dove Self Esteem Project.

Through that experience, I recognized that there was so much more we could be doing within Unilever. Thinking of my father, who raised us after our mother died, and the importance of dads in all children’s lives, I started championing paternity leave for dads everywhere through Dove Men+Care.

I also become a diversity champion within Unilever, which enabled me to help women and diverse workers make it to senior levels of the organization. It’s moments like these, where you are strategically utilizing resources of a big company to get behind big, important global initiatives, when you start leaving your legacy on the world.


Interested in learning more about purpose-driven brands and CSR initiatives? Download our full report, which includes an in-depth look at the ongoing evolution of CSR, insights from three major brands that are doing CSR right, 10 top tips to craft a killer purpose-led CSR strategy and more.

Want to hear even more from Sharon? Register now for Zignal Summit 2019, taking place April 25 in San Francisco, where Sharon will deliver a keynote presentation on the value of purpose-driven brands.