AB Thinks  →  2nd June 2023

Inside Unilever: A global success story

One of the world’s largest consumer goods companies, Unilever employs over 130,000 people worldwide – an IC challenge that’s not for the faint hearted.

We recently welcomed Charlotte Carroll, Unilever’s Global Head of People Communications, to the Internal Comms Podcast. Charlotte’s impressive IC career includes time at ASOS, the BBC and Cadbury’s Schweppes, but she knows Unilever best (she’s returned to work there three times).

So what does it take to communicate with a workforce as large and diverse as Unilever’s?

Practice radical honesty, but also radical listening
Top-down communication has been the norm in many major corporations for as long as we can remember. But things are done differently at Unilever.

“We’ve been doing a channel called ‘your call’ pretty much throughout [Unilever CEO] Alan’s leadership. It’s something which really took flight because of the pandemic,” said Charlotte.

“And we created an opportunity for people to ask questions. Twenty minutes of talking about what’s going on in the company from Alan and the co-host, and then most of the time dedicated to people being able to ask questions from right around the company, and being able to do that anonymously.”

Does the open forum always work? You may be familiar with a deathly silence when the floor is offered out to colleagues. But Charlotte says that by creating a space where there’s no bad questions, and acknowledging that it’s uncomfortable to ask questions in general as a human being, you can encourage colleagues to find their voice. “We recognise that it’s just intimidating to ask questions in a format where there’s thousands of other colleagues tuned in,” she said.

Knowledge share and foster community
Large organisations will have various functions or groups across the business. For Unilever, there’s five global business groups: beauty and wellbeing, personal care, home care, nutrition, and ice cream.

If your business is split out into factions, you’ll likely have various comms professionals that work in each part of the business. And what’s essential to providing a joined-up, equal experience for colleagues across the whole business is sharing knowledge and opening a forum for you all to collaborate.

Beyond the leadership team for each global business group, the comms pros get together regularly at Unilever. “We connect with the whole of the community who work in communications and corporate affairs in Unilever, globally, every two weeks,” said Charlotte. “We have something called ‘comms connects’ and that’s our forum for sharing best practice, sharing key updates, and making sure everybody’s really plugged in and clear about what’s going on.”

And it helps the wider business get ahead of any hiccups. “It’s an opportunity to make sure there’s no big surprises in terms of the air traffic control in a company of our size and scale. It really, really helps to keep us have the dots all joined up.”

Let purpose guide the way
Regardless of the many different ways each area of your business might do things, there should be a set of values that unite you all – a purpose that the company and all of its colleagues stands behind. This unifying purpose can then act as a north star throughout any communications to your team – and indeed, to your customers.

At Unilever, the unifying purpose is sustainability, and it permeates everything they do. Charlotte said they have to recognise that they’ve got more than three billion people a day using one of their products and “taking care of how we do that, how we make those products, what goes into them, how we try and tread lightly on the planet…” is really important.

Listen to the full episode.