Is Unilever a True Facebook Friend?

Friends are supposed to keep you out of trouble, right? What happens when a brand you like or patronize makes those decisions on your behalf?

Eric Mower + Associates’ Brand as Friend® philosophy tasks practitioners to look at every interaction through the eyes of a friend. Using nine scientific drivers of friendship, we design each brand interaction to build affection, relevance and trust among consumers with the goal of shifting brands from being viewed as products and services to friends and trusted advisors. What does this have to do with Unilever threating to pull ads from Facebook and Google if they don’t “clean up the swamp”?

True friends tell you when you’re wrong. They aren’t afraid to and are often the first to speak up when you’re losing your way. They might even need to resort to extreme measures to pull you back on track. The forceful warning made by Unilever CMO Keith Weed in a speech at an advertising conference delivered a loud and clear message to Facebook and Google. The brand considers its customer friends, and is looking out for them.

True friends protect. Owner of brands such as Dove, Lipton, Axe and Ben & Jerry’s, Unilever’s annual marketing budget is roughly $9.8 billion, and 25% of its ads are digital. In his speech, Weed stated that social media’s objectionable content and lack of protection for children is “eroding social trust, harming users and undermining democracies,” and also said “this is not something that can be brushed aside or ignored.” The fourth-largest global advertiser is willing to use its sizable budget to draw a line in the sand and protect its consumers.

True friends help you rebuild. Facebook and Google have commanded the online ad market for years, amassing more than 77% of digital ad spending in 2016 (Business Insider), an estimated 60% in 2017 (CNN), and projecting more than 65% in 2018 (USA Today). However, both companies have faced harsh criticism recently — Facebook for enabling fake news, foreign election meddling, filter bubbles and social media addiction, and Google for serving ads alongside objectionable videos on its YouTube platform. Weed said 2018 would either be the year of “techlash” — where the world turns on the tech giants — or the year of trust in which “we collectively rebuild trust back in our systems and our society.” Both Facebook and Google released statements supporting Unilever’s comments, and Facebook stated they are “working closely with them.”

By finding an issue that is relevant to its consumers — the digital space — and acting to protect them, Weed’s speech positioned Unilever as a true friend to its consumers, building affection and trust in the process. What does all this mean for Facebook and Google? At a minimum, these advertising platforms need to understand that trust among friends is paramount, and ultimately outweighs the platforms’ decisions about what content they serve. Brands are standing up for their customers. Don’t be surprised if others follow Unilever’s lead.