The State of Children's Rights and Business

Unilever: Raising the bar for responsible marketing and product development

Global Benchmark 2022

Company score level:

Leader

Sector:

Food, Beverage & Personal Care

Industry:

Personal Care

Country HQ:

UK

About Unilever

Established over 100 years ago, Unilever is one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies with headquarters in London, England.   Unilever products include food, condiments, ice cream, cleaning agents, beauty products, and personal care. Unilever’s largest brands include Dove, Sunsilk, Knorr, Rexona/Degree, Ben & Jerry’s, Omo/Persil, Heartbrand (Wall’s) ice creams, Hellmann’s and Magnum.  Unilever is the largest producer of soap in the world and its products are available in around 190 countries.

About the case series

Global Child Forum knows that one of the best ways to increase your company’s positive impact on children is by learning from others. The challenges that companies face, while seemingly unique, do share much in common with one another when trying to understand how best to manage operations sustainably and with a child-first perspective. The cases in this series, based on interviews with company professionals are executing on their company’s sustainability and human rights practices,  provide a range of perspectives and solutions that we hope widen your thinking on what’s possible when children’s rights are put into focus.

Case:

Raising the bar for responsible marketing and product development

British multinational consumer goods company Unilever has a presence in 190 countries. They boast more than 400 brands and estimate that 3.4 billion people use their products every day — products that include familiar snacks, household Items, and beauty products. Producing everything from Vaseline to ice cream, the company has a daily presence and an ongoing impact on the lives of children and young people.

Generally speaking, there are numerous ways in which there is a risk posed to children through, for example, accidental ingestion of cleaning products, regular consumption of foods with high levels of fat salt and sugars (HFSS), and damaging marketing messages that include negative stereotypes or lifestyles. On the other hand, there is also opportunity to exercise a positive influence on children through ensuring that packaging and products are safe for them, that foods are healthy and nutritious, and that marketing portrays healthy lifestyles and positive role models.

Responsible marketing – an ever-evolving challenge

Unilever was one of the first companies to introduce and apply principles for responsible marketing to children back in 2003. These principles have been updated over the years and continue to evolve to address new concerns as they arise.

Reflecting the ongoing challenge of childhood obesity, the growing impact of social media on children’s consumer choices, and the difficulty of choosing healthy options among an abundance of products on the market, Unilever saw a need to raise the bar for responsible marketing to children, and did so by issuing a new set of 15 principles in 2020. The company committed to not market products to children under the age of 12 in traditional media, and under the age of 13 through digital platforms. As a member of the International Food and Beverage Alliance, a natural subsequent step was signing on to the International Food and Beverage Alliance 2021 Enhanced Global Policy on Marketing Communications to Children.

The Journey Continues

The journey continues, as evidenced by the fact that the company is strengthening its commitments again, including raising the age threshold to define a child from 12 to 16 years. These principles are applicable to all of Unilever’s food and beverage marketing communications and activities globally. By January 2023 the company has committed to

  • Not targeting children under 16 years old with any marketing or social media communications
  • Not using any influencers, celebrities or social media stars who are under the age of 16 or primarily appeal to children under the age of 16
  • Ensuring that all products created for children will adhere to Unilever’s Highest Nutritional Standards. In addition, for ice cream, in line with the “Products Responsibly Made for Kids” promise which is that these products are responsibly communicated, responsibly solod and responsibly designed, Unilever caps the total sugar level to 12 grams or less per portion and continue to contain 110 kilocalories or less per portion,
  • Providing clear and prominent disclosure of provisions to influencers and limiting child appeal to influencer content
  • Continuing to refrain from promotion of brands or products in schools, with the exception of participation in educational campaigns when specifically requested

The motivation for the company to take these steps comes from recognising the power that social media and influencers can have on children’s choices and wanting to raise the bar on responsible marketing. By making these changes, the goal is to continue to reduce children’s exposure to advertising from the food and beverage industry, and instead support parents.

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