Unilever Chief Sees Net Gains

Consumer products giant Unilever is about as far away from a .com as one can get. However, that’s not stopping the company from making big bets on the Internet.

The company recently created an interactive brand center whose job is to explore ways the companies brands, which include Lipton ice tea, Lever 2000 soap, Suave shampoos and Good Humor ice cream, can be better marketed over the Internet. Plans call for another center to be added later this year that will focus on overseas markets.

In addition, Unilever last week signed a deal with Excite@Home to use rich media banners to market products. Although the value of the deal wasn’t disclosed, both parties said it represents the largest investment of any company in a broadband advertising program.

It has also done banner ad deals with Microsoft’s WebTV Networks.

Richard Goldstein, president and chief executive officer of Unilever United States Inc.., said in 1998 10 of the companies brands had an Internet presence and that number will more than double this year.

Goldstein said Unilever’s interactive brand center not only helps the company’s brands establish an online presence, but it also helps company executives know how best to use the medium to benefit the bottom line.

“The IBC has built a massive database of 10 milion consumers who have shared information with us. It not only allows a brand to address specific needs, but will serve as a launchpad for multi-brand initiatives,” he said.

The company is working with Microsoft Corp. to explore new ways to reach consumers online and is the primary sponsor of MSN’s Women Central.

“Women now account for 50 percent of the online audience in North America. Our traditional media spending will remain strong. However, the Internet can have a powerful role in our branding goals. We’ve learned we must engage, inform, entain and provide real value,” Goldstein said.

So far, Goldstein said the company’s online efforts have generated good results. He said 8 percent of consumers who saw an ad banner for Lipton’s recipe site ended up visiting, 62 percent of those obtained a recipe and 80 percent of those who got a recipe ended up using a Lipton’s Recipe Secret product in the meal.

Goldstein said Unilever is also looking to capitalize on e-commerce growth, although he conceded that’s a big challenge for a consumer goods company. However, he believes that’s likely to change.

“It wasn’t long ago when pundits predicted fashion had little e-commerce promise. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that the more diverse the audience, the greater the need for a variety of products,” he said.

While no one knows for sure how to make the best of the Internet’s potential, Goldstein said it has already turned conventional brand marketing on its head.

“The consumer will define conditions for a sale. A recent study showed online merchants spent $26 (in marketing) for every order they received. We clearly need new business models for e-commerce to be a viable revenue stream,” he said.

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