Skips and jumps

Valentina Ciobanu of Unilever is Global Brand Director for Skip, a premium laundry detergent brand. She has 12 years of experience in FMCG, working on brand launches, innovation and turnarounds, looking to solve strategic challenges and create new mixes that can change the fortunes of a brand.

skips and jumps

Graduating from the LBS Executive MBA programme in 2013, she is now responsible for Skip’s strategy, global communication and innovation. For she describes herself as a news junkie, fashion lover and serious coffee drinker. She talked with Mark Blayney Stuart.

Tell me about your day-to-day work.
I moved from finance to marketing early on in my career, almost by accident. I was hooked from day one. There’s logic, reason, planning and data, but there’s also magic, surprise, delight and creativity. 

I spend part of my time looking after brand positioning and communication. Working on a premium detergent brand may mean speaking to a consumer about why she loves clothes, looking through reports, social media or video footage to try to uncover a new insight or explain a consumer behaviour, or meeting with a creative, digital or media agency to work on a future campaign. As marketers, we are responsible for the strategic direction we take, the creative briefs we place and the work we buy; but we need agencies to contribute with ideas and advertising, so a strong partnership with creative agencies is very valuable. 

Innovation is also a key responsibility. My team manages a series of mid- to long-term innovation projects, co-ordinating the different mix components, from the benefit offered to consumers to the brief the R&D team works towards, or the packaging the innovation will come in. We use fragrance experts, packaging experts and design agencies to define how a new product will look and feel; these more creative elements are often enjoyable and surprising.

In parallel, the marketing project leader will also need to deliver on the project timings and work with the finance team to make sure there’s a robust business case. So most of my marketer colleagues are conversant in many ‘languages’, from co-ordinating a product formulation with R&D, to knowing how best to judge design work.

During my time at LBS I got used to having both my day job and my executive MBA studies, and while this wasn’t easy at the time, I got used to having two streams of intellectual stimulation. I often hear the same from my EMBA alumni colleagues; we can hardly believe it, but we miss those extremely busy times. So now I read business or advertising magazines most evenings, I watch new ads, go through packaging or digital marketing blogs or read from the long list of books I bought while at LBS and still haven’t quite finished.

What do you need to understand your consumers?
A curious mind – trying to make sense of people’s choices – is a characteristic many marketers share, particularly in consumer goods. I always had this habit of looking at what other people are choosing in a supermarket and asking myself why that might be. If at the cashier someone in front of me pays for wine and cake on a Saturday evening, I might think they’re on their way to visit a friend for dinner. If someone’s buying fabric conditioner and yoghurt, does that mean they have children? One can find insights anywhere, and educating your instincts through careful observation, about why and how choices get made in your category, can only help.

Do the insights gained from social media lessen the need for market research? 
It’s true that there’s now a huge amount of data available, about what people buy, when, where and how. And there’s more direct feedback and conversations about brands as well. This is of course useful; it helps explain consumer behaviour, sheds light on drivers of preference, and provides inputs for optimising products or campaigns. But it might not necessarily spell out the next big idea. Asking consumers why they did what they did in the past doesn’t always suggest what they’ll do in the future. So we still need other techniques, to help us understand what the future can be, and what big ideas we should pursue.

On Skip we have a digital platform called #ThreeWordWardrobe, where we invite fashion bloggers and consumers to post pictures of their outfits and describe them in three words: colour, fabric and mood. It offers inspiration to our consumers and it also helps us better understand how women view clothes, and the link between the garment’s characteristics and the buyer’s emotions.

Will the future of marketing look very different, or are the golden rules still the same? 
The fundamentals of marketing will remain true. Genuinely to understand people’s needs, and respond with products and messages that add value and resonate deeply. This has been a good guiding principle for many decades and should not go out of fashion. 

Of course the way we do marketing has been turned upside down in our digitally connected world, and changes in technology, globalisation and demographics will continue to influence marketers’ choice of media channels, advertising assets and tonality. But we shouldn’t forget about good old marketing strategy.

Reading marketing magazines or blogs, I’m sometimes surprised how little there is about consumer segmentation, brand positioning, pricing strategy and building brand equity. The conversations are focused around data, mobile, wearables, social, programmatic… Of course we need to know these trends, tools and tactics; they’ve transformed marketing campaigns and will continue to do so. But there isn’t a SEO strategy in the world that can replace a solid brand positioning, and smart media buying is useless if not combined with a message that truly touches people. We should be able to use technology and connectivity to inform and execute our marketing strategy, not replace it. 

At Unilever we follow an approach we call Crafting Brands for Life, which starts with defining a meaningful brand purpose anchored in a human truth. Once this is in place, we focus on offering brand experiences that make the most of the connected world we inhabit; in the right context, with the right technology. 

Tell me more about how you manage sustainability and Unilever’s plan to grow the business while reducing impact. 
The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan is probably one of the reasons Unilever is the third most sought-after employer in the world, according to a recent LinkedIn study. The plan’s ambition is to double the size of the business, while reducing our impact on the environment and increasing our positive social impact. This belief that sustainable equitable growth is the only acceptable business model, and that Unilever needs to be part of the solution, is very motivating.

It has three big goals: improve health and wellbeing, reduce environmental impact and enhance livelihoods. And every brand has to contribute, and embed sustainability into its plans. For Laundry, this could mean developing products that use less water or are more easily rinsed, more concentrated formulations that minimise the impact on the environment, reduced packaging weight, or creating campaigns that encourage consumers to wash at lower temperatures. 

Doing well by doing good is not always easy or straightforward, but it’s worth the effort. The magic happens when an idea is good for consumers, good for business, and good for the environment. 

What about marketing to different audiences, for example to men, or to people in their 50s and 60s?
In a context of significant demographic, social and technological change, there are now many smaller yet sizeable audience segments that would benefit from customised marketing experiences. There’s an increasing number of single male households, the number of working mothers is growing at double digit rates in many countries, and there’s a rise in the proportion of the population that is elderly.

Rather than see this as a problem or a threat to the ‘one size fits all’ model that might have worked well in the past, there’s much to gain from seeing these trends as opportunities. Terms like ‘ageing population’ obscure the fact that we’re not just living for longer, but we’re younger for longer, working, travelling or being active. This is a growing opportunity.

The detergent brand I work on, Skip, tries to connect with modern women, who might have a family and working life, but who also love clothes. And speaking to them about this connection with clothes, telling them that the brand loves what they’re wearing, means we’re addressing them as women who love their wardrobe, not just people doing the laundry. This craft of storytelling for different audiences is what can help fuel ongoing conversations. 

Are there fully equal opportunities for women now in business?
I am lucky in this respect. On the one hand, I have a mind-set that the value of my work comes from how I think and what I do, not my gender or nationality. On the other hand, at Unilever the benefits of having a gender-balanced organisation are well understood: it helps power creativity and innovation, and it allows us to serve our diverse consumer base. 

While my personal experience has so far been positive, I realise not all women have been this fortunate. I believe in creating opportunities for talented women and I see initiatives like LBS’s Women’s Scholarship as vital to this.