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Inside the Unilever Brand that’s Leading the Charge on Disability Inclusion in Marketing



Degree’s global brand VP Kathryn Swallow shares what the Unilever brand has learned about inclusive design and working to support disabled communities in its advertising and marketing, with LBB’s Laura Swinton

Inside the Unilever Brand that’s Leading the Charge on Disability Inclusion in Marketing
In April 2021, Unilever deodorant brand Degree made a statement and challenged all other brands and businesses to up their game when it comes to inclusive design when they launched Degree Inclusive.

The new product was the world’s first deodorant for people with upper limb disabilities and visual impairment. It took over a year to develop - a long and considered process that involved experts, advocates and real consumers with disabilities. And, with this summer’s Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo, the brand has kept up momentum with their Watch Me Move campaign, that’s all about ensuring everyone can enjoy the benefits of movement, no matter how they move. It’s inspired by the insight that the fear of judgement stops 46% of people from being active, and for people with disabilities these numbers are even higher, at 51%. Degree’s research also found that 81% of people with disabilities say they do not feel welcome in fitness spaces.

Watch Me Move and Degree Inclusive are building on an existing drive to improve representation and inclusion of people with disabilities within the brand (known as Sure in United Kingdom, Ireland and India, Degree in the United States and Canada, and Rexona in most other countries) and also across the wider Unilever organisation.

This recent campaign, which was developed by the agency Oliver, is a continuation of Degree’s ongoing Breaking Limits program, supporting those who face the biggest barriers to being active (including people with disabilities) and providing them access to mentors and safe spaces to move via community programs. As part of Degree’s pledge to help millions of young people transform their lives through movement, Degree committed $5 million over the next five years to inspire people to break limits through movement.

 Kathryn Swallow, global brand VP explains that this recent activity is a proactive evolution of Unilever’s Unstereotype drive. “Watch Me Move and Degree Inclusive are not the first of Unilever’s broader efforts to support people with disabilities and advance inclusivity,” she says. 

“In 2016, Unilever launched Unstereotype, a company-wide commitment to eradicate harmful stereotypes from our advertising and to advance portrayals of people in our ads. Unstereotype is part of our global business strategy and a key pillar to Unilever’s Equity, Diversity & Inclusion strategy. It goes beyond gender to address the representation and portrayals of all people, considering factors such as race, ethnicity, sexuality, age and ability. From the talent we recruit to the products we make, people with disabilities are part of Unilever’s future and we are a better company and brand, if we include and represent them.”

Moreover, Rexona (the international brand name) has been supporting people with disabilities since 2018, and is a key sponsor of the Asian Para Games. Not only has Rexona been celebrating the professional disabled athletes, but has been working with grassroots organisations to help them facilitate activities for people of all abilities. 

One eye-catching example is ‘Gerak Tak Terbatas’ - ‘Move Beyond Boundaries’ - a call to action campaign in Indonesia that comes hand-in-hand with an app that tots up users’ step counts and converts them to donations to help support disabled societies and clubs pay for mobility aids.

Digging deeper, Degree’s continued support for disabled communities is rooted in the brand’s purpose and strategy. “Degree believes that movement is for everyone, even though it’s not the same for everyone, and that movement has the power to transform lives,” says Kathryn. “However, societal barriers, like discrimination because of race, gender or perceived ability, can fuel self-doubt that holds people back from moving. So, it was a natural fit for Degree to address these societal barriers and highlight the need for more diverse representation in the fitness community – specifically among individuals with disabilities – whose fears of judgement can be compounded by the lack of representation of disabled trainers and coaches in the fitness industry, and the limited access to inclusive fitness spaces.”

Learning from Inclusive Design

While inclusion and support for people with disabilities has been a driving principle for the brand for several years, the Degree Inclusive package redesign represents a significant gear shift and levelling up.

The design process involved working alongside people with disabilities in order to understand people’s needs and the challenges they faced. This was not a unilateral exercise and for Kathryn this meant being open to having presuppositions challenged.

“The prototype was created in collaboration with an inclusive team of design experts from Wunderman Thompson, occupational therapists, engineers, consultants, and people living with disabilities across the globe. Using a collaborative approach, we went through three rounds of revisions to arrive at a final design,” she says. 

The response from the broader disability community was, Kathryn says, ‘incredible’ - but she says the overwhelming positive response also is an indictment of how long disabled people have waited for brands to take their needs seriously and to treat them with the respect with which they would treat any customer.
The experience made Kathryn rethink inclusivity and accessibility across all of the brand's touchpoints, and the team has also been able to share their lessons with the rest of Unilever. 

“These experiences underscored that it’s critical to approach marketing towards people with disabilities from a holistic, 360 view – and put action behind your words and commitments,” says Kathryn. “We saw success with Degree Inclusive because we took a highly collaborative approach and authentically engaged people with disabilities every step of the way, from the prototype development to the testing phase to marketing and communications execution. I think this collaborative, community-based, pilot approach is something that Unilever will continue to prioritise beyond just Degree and this specific campaign.”

Why disability is an area brands can’t ignore 

If Degree Inclusive revealed the breadth and depth of journey ahead for the brand, the research behind the current Watch Me Move campaign has helped reaffirm why that journey is such an important one to take. It reveals the systemic and structural challenges facing people with disabilities and the psychological and health toll that it can take.

“The stat that 81% of people with disabilities say they do not feel welcome in fitness spaces was particularly eye opening. While self-doubt certainly can play a role in this, society further fuels this fear by offering a very narrow view of what an athlete or “mover” should be,” says Kathryn. 

That’s not to say that these marketing efforts only benefit one marginalised group. Inclusive design can be better design for everyone. Helping to make fitness spaces feel more welcoming to people with disabilities makes them more welcoming for all. That being said, people with disabilities represent a huge group and there’s a hard business case for inclusion. Exclusive design and ignorance essentially tells consumers with disabilities that their money isn’t good enough.

“Disabled people – the world’s largest minority group – with a global spending power of $1.2 trillion, are seldom represented in ads,” says Kathryn. “With every creative brief it’s about getting inclusion written into it – the cultural differences definitely impact few bits of how the execution lands (i.e. role of humour) – but the challenge: representation (and the overwhelming positive response to our work), is the same across both geographies. For Degree, we will continue to holistically consider people with disabilities in all we do; behind the camera, in front of the camera, in creative and product development.”

The key, though, is to work with disabled communities and experts - and to understand that there is no one size fits all. “It was absolutely critical, and we’ve seen this across both our work with Degree Inclusive and Watch Me Move. At Unilever, we believe that we’re a better company and brand, if we include and represent underserved communities, from the talent we recruit to the products we make,” says Kathryn.

Different markets create slightly different cultural, social and economic contexts for people with disabilities. Where, for example, the UK has seen a huge cultural shift pushed by Channel 4 and the Paralympics and has harnessed humour to open up conversations, that approach may not be appropriate elsewhere.
Nonetheless, while there are no easy answers, that alone is no reason for brands to avoid doing necessary work. With one in four Americans living with a disability, there’s a great deal of work to be done by brands to make sure that content matches up with society and that products are accessible. Yes, it’s a challenge, but it’s also an area ripe with opportunity. What advice would Kathryn give to marketers and agencies that have yet to start or haven't yet started that journey?

“Achieving a meaningful, lasting model for inclusivity and accessibility at a corporate-wide level won’t happen overnight, but it’s important to take small, tangible steps forward and implement a long-term plan for change. It’s also important to take accountability. As the world’s leading antiperspirant brand, we saw that we needed to do better and lead the way for change. This kind of transparency is necessary in order to truly resonate with the consumers we’re looking to serve,” she says.

“In addition, I would advise other marketers and agencies to work hand in hand with disability experts and people with disabilities to ensure we are designing with them and not for them. This is the approach that we took for the development of the beta trial for Degree Inclusive and is what we are continuing to do for future product development and comms development.”

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LBB Editorial, Thu, 23 Sep 2021 09:57:00 GMT