Andrew Hill Unilever’s soap operas: history repeats itself

The return of the “soap opera” with a digital twist – thanks to multi-million pound deals struck by Unilever with Viacom and News Corp – is a further indication that there really is nothing new in marketing.

As I wrote recently, in relation to the spat between BrewDog, a Scottish independent brewer, and the beverage giant Diageo, the tools of communication and promotion may change, but the underlying challenges and responses are the same as they ever were.

Last time I talked to Keith Weed, Unilever’s irrepressible chief marketing officer (and the man behind the “new” soap operas), he took me to task for suggesting that William Hesketh Lever, the industrialist who founded Unilever’s ancestor Lever Brothers, might have been amazed by some of the group’s modern marketing techniques.

Not at all, said Mr Weed. In fact,  Lever (later Lord Leverhulme) was always on the lookout for different ways to promote his soap and cleaning products. For instance, he brought back two projectors from a Paris exhibition that he used to beam product advertisements onto the side of London buildings, causing such a fuss that, according to Unilever’s CMO, “they had to make it illegal, to prevent traffic grinding to a halt”. The modern equivalent would be Unilever’s “Angels” ad campaign for Lynx deodorant, which appeared to show angels dropping from heaven to interact with astonished passengers at London’s Victoria station.