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Towards a customer-centric digital transformation

Q&A with Unilever’s Asad Ur Rehman

Asad Rehman

Brands are constantly shifting and evolving trying to catch up with today’s increasingly digital world that demands new strategies and techniques to stay relevant in the game. The Berries interviewed Asad Ur Rehman, Director of Media and Digital Transformation at Unilever MENA, to get his insights on how should brands tackle the opportunities and challenges of digital transformation.

BB: The term “digital transformation” has been commonly used to describe anything that operates within the horizon of social media, mobile and web. What does “digital transformation” mean for brands?

AR: Digital transformation is not about social media, mobile or web. It is a term that holistically defines the need for organizations to take advantage of the modern technological developments. This transformation also helps avoid being a victim to all sorts disruptions that are all pervasive these days (Uber disrupting taxis, Zomato / Deliveroo disrupting the home cooking and restaurant business etc.).

Digital transformation should be less about technology and more about the business output. It is important to remember that technology is means and not the end. You could be a technology company, in which case a piece of technology might be the end for you. Even then, that piece of technology needs to solve a real-life problem. Solutions created without any problems are never a good start to a business. This is the fundamental principal of digital transformation.

Therefore, at the heart of this transformation is the concept of consumer (or customer) centricity. Not that the brands or business have not kept consumers at the center before, but this focus becomes increasingly pertinent while driving technological readiness in any organization.

Digital Transformation impacts marketing and brands. In the new world order, there are a few factors that are changing the art of marketing and brand building. Notable amongst them is the ability to drive increased relevance with consumers. We are living through what is being called “The Attention Economy” – where the thumbs roll on the mobile screen faster than the brains can think. If you are not relevant, you are not given the attention. If you are not given the attention, you do not exist.

Brands can drive this relevance through “data”. Whilst almost an abused and a very generic term, the use of “data” from digital channels can really help drive enhanced relevance. Data Driven marketing allows for greater customization of messages and experiences. The trail of data collected also allows for greater depth in consumer or decision journey mapping.

Once you use this trail of data you suddenly realize that “mass marketing” as you knew it is almost dead. That realization itself begins to demand a transformed approach to building brands – one that is underpinned by use of modern technology to create experiences and craft communications- as well as the use of sophisticated data and customer management platforms.

BB: One of the most important tips of digital transformation is ‘make it personal’. From Unilever’s brand book, how can brands leverage digital transformation to become more consumer-centric?

AR: Complete 1:1 personalization is perhaps the holy grail of modern marketing- though far from being a reality at this point. We are however at a stage where technology platforms exist that can design and change the element of an ad (video or display) based on certain data signals in real time. These platforms create a capability that didn’t exist in the past. All this is made possible because of the availability of data, and is leading to greater personalization of content.

Brands can not do this unless they have created a capability (technology, expertise and culture) that allows them to take advantage of this data. Brands also need to be increasingly responsible about how this data is used. General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has far reaching implications for digital marketing. What we saw with the Cambridge Analytica fiasco is abuse of data that helped create a few of the most effective campaigns in the history of the world. Whilst that showed potential for what “can” be done by brands to influence consumers, it also showed what “should not” be done.

BB: While brands are able to reach consumers throughout many moments in their lives, competition for their attention is becoming stiffer. How digital transformation was able to make Unilever outperform the competition?

AR: Digital Transformation does not work in isolation. The very objective of the work done under this is to help make a business impact. Hence the ultimate measures of performance remain what they are: Market share, top line growth and the bottom line.

BB: Digital, and especially mobile, has fundamentally changed the way people consume media, develop brand preferences and choose products. Can you elaborate on how digital transformation was able to help Unilever empower its consumers around the world ?

AR: Unilever strongly believes in our “Brands with Purpose” agenda. Some of the strongest pieces of work done by our brands have embraced a powerful purpose and delivered it through digital channels with great relevance to the right consumers. Take Dove’s Self Esteem Fund for example, or Lifebuoy’s Infection Alert System.

E-Commerce has also dramatically altered in how consumers make their choices. We have, globally, recently invested in brands like Dollar Shave Club, Schmidt’s Naturals, Seventh Generation, Murad, and Dermalogica, to name a few. These brands are native to what we call a “digital economy” and have been created keeping the consumer centric experiences in mind. These brands also have ecommerce central to their route to market strategy.

BB: Digital transformation is the act of investing in people, technology, systems, and processes to upgrade how businesses work in this digital economy. In your opinion, what are the key challenges that face brands when developing a digital transformation strategy?

AR: There are quite a few.

  • Creating a culture that enables transformation is the first and foremost challenge. The saying of “culture eats strategy for lunch” is nowhere truer than it is in the digital transformation work.
  • Setting a mutual understanding of the end game, or establishing a common vision is another key challenge. Ownership of that vision by senior leadership is an essential element of transformation.
  • Capability and Skill-set development and upgrade is another challenge. Specially given the fact that the speed of technological development demands new skills to be in place on an ongoing basis.
  • Dealing with legacy systems and processes is another. These legacies exist in almost all parts of any organization. And most often than not these legacies cannot be eliminated out of the system without a short term and immediate negative impact on the business. Walking the fine line between the new and the old is key to developing a transformation approach.
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