Unilever: An Ethical Company?

Unilever has become a leading global manufacturer of packaged consumer goods (Deighton 1). Unilever operates in many sectors of the economy including food, home, and personal care. They own over 400 brands with eleven of them having global annual revenues of over $1 billion: Knorr, Surf, Lipton, Omo, Sunsilk, Dove, Blue Band, Lux, Hellmann’s, Becel, and the Heartbrand logo. Other brands they own include Axe, Ben and Jerry’s, Slim-Fast, Klondike, Vaseline, Ragu, and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. “With annual revenues of $50 billion, Unilever compared in size to Nestle ($69 billion), Proctor and Gamble ($68 billion), and Kraft Foods ($34 billion)” (Deighton 1).

Unilever Background:

Unilever was founded on January 1, 1930 when the Dutch Margarine Unie combined with the Lever Brothers from the U.K. The merger made sense because both companies depended on palm oil. The Dutch Margarine Unie made edible oil products and the Lever Brothers made soaps. “By the 1980’s Unilever’s palm oil dependence had shrunk, but its British colonial and Dutch trading heritage continued to shape the highly multinational enterprise” (Deighton 1). They expanded to every continent using their local roots on a global scale.

The Dove Brand:

Dove produces beauty products mainly for women. In 2007, with sales reaching over $2.5 billion a year from 80 different countries, Dove became the world’s number one cleansing brand. They achieved this success through a marketing campaign known as “The Campaign for Real Beauty.” “Dove’s mission is to make more women feel beautiful every day by broadening the narrow definition of beauty and inspiring them to take great care of themselves.” The impact of the campaign proved to be a positive one. “The impact was extraordinary. New programs echoed the message of the ad, and Oprah Winfrey devoted a full show to self-esteem, with the advertisement as a centerpiece. Jay Leno ran a parody of the ad on his late-night talk show and Wal-Mart developed a version of the ad featuring its employees” (Deighton 5).

The Axe Brand:

Axe provides grooming products mainly for the young male consumer. Unilever launched this brand back in 1983 in France. Axe markets itself to younger men by sending the message that if you use Axe, more women will become attracted to you. Unilever has spent more than $100 million on marketing for the brand. A Time’s article explains:

“Wearing Axe will lead to the ultimate male fantasies, imply the ads; one shows a refrigerator stuffed with nothing but whipped-cream bottles and the line ‘The Axe Effect.’ The company places ads in such media outlets as Maxim and FHM, which target primarily young-male audiences. ‘The product has a role in the ads–to help women pay attention to you,’ says Kevin George, Unilever’s director of marketing.”

Axe has done a great job of making the brand a leader in its industry, owning 83% of the market share and generating $150 million annually.

Is Unilever a hypocrite?

Dove and Axe do very well using completely different marketing strategies. The strategies actually contradict each other in the message they send and Unilever owns both of these companies. How could Unilever own two companies that literally market against each other? Many critics ask the same question. With “75% of teenage girls feeling depressed, guilty, and shameful after spending just three minutes leafing through a fashion magazine” (Sirratt 1) Dove feels obligated to help these girls. In response to this statistic, Dove redefined beauty by making women look to the inside instead of the outside. Axe, on the other hand, defines women as trophies for using their products. Brannan Sirratt explains:

“The clash of these two advertising avenues says much (or little) for the integrity of the Unilever Corporation. Certainly, any good that the Real Beauty messages accomplish is only diminished by the damage that Axe does with a single commercial. While young women struggle to find hope that they are loved for who they are, young men are taught to “find the eye candy” and fantasize about a woman who offers, ‘I’ll go to your room with you, but I’m not taking off my high heels.’”

Many critics have bashed Unilever for their willingness to do whatever it takes to sell their products, even if that means sending out completely opposing messages. The Associate Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood stated, “Dove is positioning itself as a brand that cares and is trying to teach girls to resist this messaging. At the same time Unilever, in the form of Axe, is putting out some of the worst messaging there is” (Stewart 1). With the issues that arise from these two marketing campaigns, it begs the question whether Unilever runs its business ethically. If they are willing to literally market two of their companies against each other, then there has to be problems within the Unilever Corporation, right?


Unilever was named the world’s most ethical company in 2009. A think tank was dedicated to ranking the top ethical businesses on business ethics, corporate social responsibility, and anti-corruption and sustainability.  Unilever’s website explains, “According to the judges, Unilever earned a coveted place on the list by going beyond legal minimums, introducing innovative ideas to benefit the public and forcing its competitors to follow suit by raising the bar on what it takes to be an ethical leader.” Unilever has been a true standout in the industry proving good practices result in a good image.

In 2007 Patrick Cescau, Unilever’s chief executive, was awarded the Botwinick Prize in Ethics by the Columbia Business School. The award is given to an individual who represents the highest standard of professional and ethical conduct. After receiving the award, Mr. Cescau explained, “Social responsibility and sustainable development are no longer fringe activities, but are central to our business. And just as this has become core to business, so it should also become core to management education. It must be moved to the heart of the curriculum.”

Also in 2007, the Carbon Disclosure Project considered Unilever best in its class in dealing with climate change disclosure. It was also, for nine years running, the leader in the Dow Jones Sustainability World Indexes in the food and beverage sector. Additionally, playing a large role in the tea industry, Unilever decided to partner with the Rainforest Alliance. They promised to obtain all of their tea products from sustainable, ethical sources.

Mixed Feelings.

Unilever has proven to be an ethical company being an industry leader in this regard. Their chief executive was awarded recognition for the highest standard of professional and ethical conduct. This leadership should have a positive effect on the ethics of the entire company. Even though their business practices gain much respect, does Unilever really care about the people they provide business for? Do they really care about the women who feel depressed when they look through a fashion magazine? Does Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” have the right intentions, or is it just a way of making money? As one blog puts it, “(Unilever) is selling feminine self-empowerment to girls and anti-feminine self-empowerment to boys. They are building it up and breaking it down at the same time, so that they can make money” (Jeremy 1).

In the end, Unilever has proven to be successful with their operations. It doesn’t matter that Dove and Axe market against each other. Despite the obvious contradiction, they are providing two markets with what they need to feel better about them selves. Both brands are doing very well and there are no signs that either brand will diminish in the near future. Unilever has proven to be an ethical company receiving prestigious awards over other respected companies that have also proven to be ethical. Unilever will continue thriving in the future.

Works Cited

Jeremy. “Dove Axe = Unilever hypocrisy.” Shape Colour. 12 Dec. 2007. Web. 17 Nov. 2012. http://shape-and-colour.com/2007/12/12/dove-axe-unilvers-hypocrisy/.

“Marketing: Just for Dudes.” Time 6 Feb. 2005: Web. 17 Nov. 2012. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1025144,00.html.

Sharp, Gwen. “Onslaught: Dove vs. Axe.” Sociological Images RSS. 24 May 2008. Web. 18 Nov. 2012. http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2008/05/24/onslaught-dove-vs-axe/.

Sirratt, Brannan. “Unilever’s “Axe” Ad Campaign Contradicts Dove “Real Beauty” Campaign.” Yahoo! Contributor Network. 30 Nov. 2007. Web. 18 Nov. 2012. http://voices.yahoo.com/unilevers-axe-ad-campaign-contradicts-dove-real-beauty-667476.html?cat=69.

Stewart, Dodai. “Dove Vs. Axe: Is Unilever Hypocritical?” Jezebel.12 Oct. 2007. Web. 18 Nov. 2012. http://jezebel.com/310320/dove-vs-axe-is-unilever-hypocritical.

“Unilever Chief Awarded Prize from Columbia Business School.” Household & Personal Products Industry 1 Dec. 2007.


2 responses to “Unilever: An Ethical Company?

  1. I’m not buying the “ethical” part. More like politically correct. Portray women as multi-layered, sensitive, full human persons, and men as primitive lunkheads, according to the feminist caricature of men. Not at all in accord with the traditional ways men have raised their sons– to transcend their primitive passions and not to define themselves by lust; to redirect those passions through sportsmanship, modesty, and spiritual and intellectual ideals. This company is pandering to conventional biases. If it were pandering to the patriarchal biases of centuries past, it would portray men as sensitive monks, and caricature women as seductive gold-diggers. An truly ethical company ought to take the high road, and portray both sexes in ways that respected their respective strengths and weaknesses. Real gender equality VALUES both sexes equally, and an authentically ethical company, at the very least, would look at the contrast between the Dove and the Axe campaigns, notice the blatant sexism, and seek depictions of the sexes that were at the very least more neutral.
    — No, this is an MBA perspective on ethics. “Hey, ethics SELLS these days! So lets hit all of the check-boxes of what people perceive as ethical, and we’ll make money hand over fist!” In the Middle Ages, they would have promoted witches’ brooms and illuminated manuscripts of religious texts, pandering to the prejudices of that era. Their approach is unthinking pandering to the prejudices of our age.
    — How many parents of boys feel comfortable about the image of young men portrayed in Axe ads? As for daughters’ mothers who don’t intuitively disparage men, and who think that their daughters might be happier if they could get into a strong, mutually supportive marriage, do they relish the idea of their daughters’ viewing of Dove and Axe commercials back-to-back? Would a young girl who grows up influenced by that kind of experience have any hope of finding a good husband, and developing a mutually supportive marriage with him?

  2. unilever prides itself as an honest and fair employer, however, the boksburg site, particularly engineering on the foods side is riddled with widespread corruption by top managers and racism. Black atrisans are discriminated against by their white managers, only white artisans get support, and one particular white artisan has a shop inside the factory, and the managers are aware of it.

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