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Unilever Is Gearing Up for a Serious Retail Media Boom


Thanks to a pandemic-induced e-commerce boom, marketing is on the precipice of an era that will see retailers become the new publishers. In fact, it’s what’s keeping Unilever’s chief digital and commerce officer Connie Braams awake at night.

According to GroupM, retail media spend will represent 18% of global digital advertising and 11% of total advertising by the time 2022 is out. By 2027, it estimates that retail media advertising will increase roughly by 60% to reach $160 billion.

This flux is top of mind for Braams, who switched out the “marketing” part of her title in early 2022 to reflect the “blurring lines” between digital marketing and commerce. “It doesn’t mean we’re dropping marketing. It means we’re adding sales,” she said at the time.

Speaking at Brandweek Europe, Braams delved further into how she has been bridging this gap since.

She revealed Unilever (which saw its own e-commerce revenues grow 44% in 2021) has restructured its network of “digital hubs” to ensure it’s treating retailers like they would “any other media partner.”

Internal restructure

Retail media has found itself in the fast lane since the Covid-19 lockdowns led to more shoppers hitting the buy button online. In 2022 alone, Amazon, Instacart, Walmart and Target have added features that allow brands to be built on their platforms. Uber and Kroger are among those flipping the funnel in the U.S. too. In Europe, Publicis Groupe just inked a deal with one of Europe’s largest supermarkets, Carrefour Group, to launch a joint venture servicing the booming market.

Pointing towards data from BCG Partners, which has forecast the global retail media market to hit $100 billion by 2026, capturing 25% of all digital ad spend, Braams acknowledged the opportunity for the industry was “massive.”

“[Retail media buys] used to be very much handled by our salespeople because most of the time it was a tactical investment. And now, because of the size of it, and because consumers are using channels differently, we need to think about it more strategically,” she explained.

To do this Unilever wading into the technical weeds of how it markets its 400 global brand portfolio, which includes everything from Dove to Hellmann’s.

It’s transformed its network of 47 digital centers—first launched in 2019 to move away from “old ways of marketing—from centralized business units previously staffed only by “digital marketers” (ie, programmatic, audience and social media specialists) to integrate talent from Unilever’s sales, digital and e-commerce teams.

“We now call them digital, marketing, media and commerce hubs. [We’ve changed this] because it’s crucial that people start working together and think through the totality of the customer experience and not just one element of it.”

Not just a short-term buy

In addition to blending its sales, marketing and media teams to ensure a frictionless customer experience for people encountering Unilever’s brands on retail platforms, Braams said Unilever was also working to forge deeper direct relationships with retailers themselves.

“We need to start treating retail media partners the same way we treat other retail partners,” she asserted. “I want to see how we can work together, in an ethical way, on issues like data exchange.”

The Unilever veteran also said she wanted to see clear measurement standards in place to help CPG brands measure the value of their spend against products that didn’t fall into the direct-to-consumer bucket.

What might work for SmartyPants vitamins might not work for Vaseline:”[Retail partners] need to bring value for money. Otherwise, we’ll go to the channels that do.”

As brand and performance converge closer together, however, Braams remained conscious about not putting all her media spend in one basket, even if retail media does offer simpler measurement and “quicker ROI.”

“I don’t want all my money to go into short-term buys,” she said. “I want to make sure I find the right balance with the long-term, investing in brands, investing in brand power and investing in brand equity.”

She admitted it was a challenge to set up the business in the right way to capitalize on the burgeoning space, saying the digital hub restructure had been key.

The Ben & Jerry’s brand just reported a bumper quarter after inflation-pressed price hikes helped compensate for a sales drop. Turnover climbed 17.8% year-on-year to reach $15.8 billion in the three months to November.

Braams credit the “power” of Unilever’s brands for helping it navigate the current uncertain economic global outlook.



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