Nicky Sparshott, CEO of Unilever Australia & New Zealand is a passionate champion of Purpose in business. As the recent recipient of The CEO Magazine’s 2022 CEO of the Year, she is on a mission to show that doing good can be good for business. I caught up with her recently to find out more about her philosophy of doubling down on profit and purpose, creating the right empowered culture internally and the role of love in business.
We started by discussing a misconception around Purpose-led businesses. “I think there is still this kind of a weird belief somehow that if you’re purpose-led, you must not be a high-performing business. I think it’s lazy to have to choose between being purpose-led or being profit rich. Working out how to do both? Well, that’s what makes you an exceptional business, an exceptional brand, an exceptional leader,” shared Sparshott.
“I always have felt very privileged working for a company like Unilever, where values drive a lot of decision making in this purpose and profit space, but what I wanted us to do in ANZ was to take it further, to definitively prove you could do both. Of course, we want profitable growth, but we want to have a regenerative impact on the planet, and we want to contribute to a fairer and more socially inclusive world in a material way, and we do all those things holistically. Then what could we deliver? What would that do in terms of the results of the business? What would it do in terms of engagement with our teams? What would it do in attracting talent, in attracting interest for the organization? That’s what we doubled down on,” she said.
Determined to not just talk the talk but walk the walk, Unilever ANZ made headlines when it became the first really sizeable multi-national subsidiary across multiple categories to attain B Corp Certification, a rigorous assessment that demonstrated verifiable positive impact across key areas like governance, workers, communities, customers, and the environment. “That was pretty audacious when we went out there and said, “Well, why not?” We got the certification in August, so it was two years in the making. But I think it talked to that compelling-yet-terrifying vision, that unlocking of change agents in the organization that come from all walks of life and that sheer bloody-minded commitment to demonstrate the possibility around this space.”
Sparshott acknowledged that big business could be an easy target, but big business done brilliantly well could also have an incredible impact at scale. For Unilever ANZ, that means reaching about 15 million Australians and Kiwis every day. When the company made a choice in terms of how they do business, and consumers made a choice about the brands that they choose, then actually “small difference, big impact” was the potential that could be unleashed. “Unilever is a house of gorgeous brands, and the way we connect with the communities we serve is through those brands. So, for us, purpose shows up in two ways. It is about the community, but it’s also about the environmental impact. So, we do the ‘and and’ of both,” she observed.
She pointed to the recent work with Rexona (an antiperspirant deodorant brand), and Dylan Alcott, 2022 Australian of the Year, and a passionate disability advocate, around their ‘Not Done Yet’ campaign which focused on getting Australians to move more by challenging cultural and social barriers and stereotypes. “I think what’s critical is finding a purpose that’s relevant for your brand. So, you can do many things, but finding the nexus of where the product that we sell and the purpose that we stand for has relevancy and saliency. It’s about finding a sweet spot that then gives consumers a handle on which to understand why this brand delivers against the intention it was made for, and it’s positive contribution.” She also shared how that has helped Rexona from a commercial perspective. “We’ve seen the strongest market share, very strong growth, improvements in profitability, improvements in engagement, a team internally that’s very motivated.” The campaign also was notable for championing disability inclusion both in front of and behind the camera, in partnership with Bus Stop Films and Bastion Creative.
Cleaning brand Omo is another brand where Unilever have championed a Purpose-driven approach. “It’s a very strong, high-performing brand, very anchored in its purpose of producing great products that don’t cost the earth, literally. So, value for money for consumers, but that also have been produced in a way that have given care to the environment right through that value chain.” The brand partnered with Orange Sky, an innovative Australian not-for-profit that helps provide equitable access to laundry and shower facilities to underserved communities. The initiative focused on bringing confidence to Australian kids below the poverty line through the dignity of clean clothes. “It makes sense to us, it makes sense to somebody buying our product, and it allows us to double down on the things that matter most in that specific category. And again, that is a brand that is overperforming the brands that have less purpose, both in our own portfolio and outside it,” said Sparshott.