For the 11.11 Sale, Unilever Sells Soap and Sizzle

To Chinese consumers, Alibaba’s upcoming 11.11 Global Shopping Festival represents a chance to purchase their favorite products at big discounts—it’s a giant online sale, pure and simple.

But to Dorcas Lau, vice president of digital marketing and e-commerce in North Asia for multinational consumer goods company Unilever, the 11.11 event is more than a sale, more than a chance to shift a lot of merchandise in 24 hours. It’s a once-a-year opportunity to make a lasting impression on a whole new set of potential consumers.

The sale last year attracted nearly 1 million shoppers, and “our primary goal for 11.11 is to find our target consumers and potential ones online, and then gain insights into their shopping preference,” Lau said. “It is not about one-off business, but future business. It is about how to build up proper marketing scenarios to retain our consumers and encourage them to come back again and again.”

“You are selling lifestyles, not simply products,” Lau said.

Check out how Unilever uses Alibaba’s data-driven marketing tools to engage Chinese consumers.

In other words, it’s about selling the sizzle, not the steak—even if what you are selling is soap and shampoo. But in the digital era, how do you accomplish this during the 11.11 event, when thousands of brands are all competing for attention?

Unilever, whose brand portfolio includes Lipton tea, Dove skincare and Lux haircare products, started campaigning in September by ramping up its efforts to reach and engage consumers through social media channels. To cultivate affinity for its brands, the British-Dutch company has been focusing on using video to promote lifestyles centered on family and interpersonal relationships.

For example, Unilever China produced a game-show video featuring blindfolded young men who were asked to guess their girlfriends’ favorite fragrances by sniffing various Unilever products such as Lux lavender fragrance hand soap, CLEAR Sakura shampoo and Comfort laundry detergent. The theme of the five-minute show, which was posted on the social media channel within Tmall.com and Taobao Marketplace, Alibaba’s giant online-shopping platforms, was “Unilever products deliver the fragrance of family.”

Unilever, which set up its first Tmall virtual storefront in 2009 and today operates six Tmall shops, is also counting on star power and the current popularity of live-streamed videos in China to build 11.11 buzz. The company is set to produce five talk shows featuring celebrities including Chinese actress Song Jia and pop singer and actor Cheney Chen. In one of the live-streamed shows, which will appear on Tmall’s mobile app, viewers will take a trip to Chen’s bathroom where the singer will extol the virtues of Lux products including silicone-free shampoos and conditioners, which will be heavily promoted during 11.11.

“We create scenarios to demonstrate the products,” explained Lau, “so we can show a holistic solution rather than simply set up shelves. The online platform makes it possible to directly show how our products are consumed by celebrities, which will trigger consumers’ fingers to click the buy-it-now button,” she said.

Innovative use of digital marketing tools like live streaming is key to engaging consumers and creating an immersive shopping experience, Lau said. To that end, the company last year established a strategic partnership with Alibaba to deepen collaboration on rural sales initiatives, cross-border e-commerce, omni-channel retailing and data-driven marketing solutions.

Using data on consumer shopping behavior to reach new consumers and strengthen bonds with existing ones is a particularly promising area. During the 11.11 sale this year, Unilever will for the first time implement Alibaba’s “dynamic contextual” technology, which allows merchants to distinguish regular shoppers from new ones and display tailored shopping pages when they visit Unilever’s Tmall stores.

This marketing tool also offers Unilever valuable information such as the gender of shoppers, their purchasing power and responsiveness to pricing—which can be used to deliver a customized and more engaging shopping experience. In the first two weeks using the technology, Unilever saw the average time spent by shoppers at its virtual stores increase by 26 percent.

Alibaba also enables Unilever to identify potential shoppers through its “unified ID” technology, which tracks users across various media and internet properties within Alibaba’s ecosystem such as microblogging site Weibo and video streaming site Youku. For example, Weibo followers of actor and singer Chen, a Lux spokesperson, and people who watch videos featuring Chen on Youku are identified as potential consumers so marketing messages can be pushed to them. Through the unified ID tool, Unilever was able to secure more than 100,000 brand followers on Tmall for Lux in one month.

Lau said these and other marketing solutions available through Alibaba has given her company far greater control over its 11.11 messaging and its digital campaigns overall. “As a merchant, I feel there are more opportunities, there are more tools available for us to reach online consumers,” Lau said. Instead of being captive to the promotional efforts of the marketplace operator, “You own your own stage,” she said.

In fact, the use of consumer data and market research figured heavily in Unilever’s preparation for 11.11, particularly in deciding which products to feature during the sale: Neutral, a hypoallergenic laundry detergent targeting young mothers with babies, and a Dove facial cleanser that has been a top-selling product in Japan, will be test-marketed through Unilever’s cross-border Tmall Global flagship store this year.

“If new products sell well on Tmall Global, we will speed up its debut in China through regular trade,” Lau said.

Last 11.11, Unilever sold its OMO laundry detergent to more than a half million consumers from 2,000 villages in 23 provinces in China through Alibaba’s Rural Taobao channel, making it the most popular detergent brand among rural shoppers, according to Unilever. As of September this year, Unilever said 12 of its brands have been sold in 13,796 villages across China.

That’s a lot of sizzle. “Our goal for 11.11 is to build brand awareness among millions of consumers who purchase and celebrate on the big day,” Lau said. “It’s a chance for us to test and promote new products and establish sustainable long-term relationships with consumers.”