BITE Focus

“We’re doing more than selling soap”

How MullenLowe and Lifebuoy put a forty-year partnership to the test to relaunch the brand in the UK during lockdown.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE


In the myriad of learnings from lockdown top of the list must be the fact that people did not know how to wash their hands properly. To meet this challenge memes sprung up, educational TikTok videos abounded, and behavioural change marketing campaigns appeared across every channel. Twenty seconds was the rule, happy birthday (twice) was the tune, but when, how often and with what were the often asked questions when it came to hand hygiene, regardless of the age of the person.

For the team at Unilever and MullenLowe, there seemed to be no better time to relaunch a brand that, across other markets, has had a significant impact on health and hygiene. Lifebuoy left the UK in the nineties but now, it seemed, its moment had arrived. To affect real change within the UK during a period in which people were looking for clear messaging and distinct purpose from brands.

For Ayesha Walawalkar, the relaunch process has been “a really liberating experience.” Walawalkar, who is Chief Strategy Office of MullenLowe UK is adamant when she explains that “had lockdown and this crisis not happened, we would not have relaunched Lifebuoy.”

Karen Hamilton agrees, acknowledging that for her, “lockdown has been a really empowering experience.” While her background is in marketing, Hamilton hasn’t actually worked in a direct marketing role for over 10 years; she is the Global Vice President for Sustainability for the product divisions of Unilever. She was invited to help run the relaunch of Lifebuoy in the UK, to drive the communication and purpose action the brand would take.

The crisis has created this sense that brands can do so much more to really contribute to making society a better place.

Karen Hamilton

Doing more than selling soap

For Hamilton, the crux of Lifebuoy’s mission is its purpose, as she explains: “We really feel that we’re doing more than selling soap.” She elaborates, “The brand’s purpose is to really help people to understand, to make it feel easy and to want to wash their hands and sanitise their hands frequently because it’s going to help them, their family and friends.”

This purpose both Hamilton and Walawalkar agree helped to “supercharge” the relaunch, to ensure the focus wasn’t just on the sale but on the reality that, as Walawalkar says, “what you do impacts behaviour [and] could save a life.”

The duo believe this shift to more purposeful brand behaviour is an essential one. Perhaps a trend that was already in motion pre-COVID, but that has been accelerated as the crisis continues. Walawalkar says that many of the brands the agency works with “have been on this journey towards really developing a very focused purpose for some time. And again, this [crisis] has accelerated it.”

Hamilton adds: “The crisis has created this sense that brands can do so much more to really contribute to making society a better place. And that actually, there’s lots of consumers that would like that and who embrace it when brands do this with authenticity and with a sense of fun or of relevance to their lives.”

Purpose, believes Walawalkar, “isn’t now just a nice to have; this is something that’s critically important.”

A relaunch under lockdown

With the crisis escalating around the world, the combined brand agency teams knew that time was of the essence. Operating at such speed meant they had to build up a level of trust to allow decisions to be made quickly. As Walawalkar says, “we had to really put our arms around the creative process so that we were all working on it together.”

Hamilton believes that the launch process went so well because of the level of trust and honesty the team had built up. “That’s a culture that has allowed us to start to forget about the technology and the distance and to challenge each other, to have honest conversations,” she adds.

This perhaps has something to do with the fact that the Lifebuoy and MullenLowe teams have been working together for the last 40 years. This hasn’t historically been in the UK because the brand has been operating in other markets, but it does mean that some members of the team, both client and agency side have worked together for many years.

Walawalkar explains that this means, “There’s a sort of muscle memory that you develop over time that this is what the brand is about but also, this is the culture of the brand.” “You very much feel like equal partners,” she adds.

There was also an excitement agency side when the news came in to relaunch the brand. They were conscious of the brilliant marketing the brand had done in other markets and so the creatives were looking forward to doing the same in the UK market. What you find in markets around the world, says Hamilton, is that “both the Unilever team and the agency team are deeply passionate about the brand. They really believe in what the brand is seeking to achieve.”

Essential overcommunication

To make this working relationship successful under a global lockdown that had forced everyone who could to work from home, Walawalkar believes that their move to almost overcommunicating to compensate was essential, however tiring it got. She moved roles under lockdown so also had the added pressure of having to run training sessions, new intro meetings and team get togethers online. Trying to get to know people, she says, “really tests the limits of this kind of technology.”

She points out that within planning and strategy departments hide many an introvert, not accustomed to being on screen so much. “It’s not second nature for people to talk to each other all the time so we have to work at it,” she says. While it may be easy to sink into the background in a physical meeting, when you’re one tile of many on a screen, it’s difficult, as Walawalkar acknowledges: “I recognise as well that you’re effectively on stage much more. And it’s tiring to do that all day, every day.”

Hamilton adds however that one benefit of everyone now working remotely is that “it creates an equality,” in terms of share of voice. When she used to run global meetings, some people would be in meeting rooms while others dialled in. Those sitting together would more often than not drown out those dialling in. Now, she believes, everyone can make their voice heard.

What consumers want

While the teams were listening to one another, they also realised it was essential to examine what their consumers wanted from a brand, what they were expecting. This, says Hamilton, was a trend pre-COVID, that “consumers, especially younger consumers were saying that they really wanted to see brands that were not doing damage to society or indeed were helping to improve society.” She cites global research that reveals that over 80% of millennials say they’d prefer to buy from brands that are making a difference to society or to the environment.

People want brands to stand for more, “they are less interested in simply the brand having a point of view,” says Hamilton. What the crisis has done, is “sharpened people’s perspective on what doing good means,” she adds.

Walawalkar draws attention to new sites that have appeared during the crisis like that have made it easy to examine which brands have done what under lockdown, which have stepped up and which have contributed. “This is not about woke washing. What this has done is brought into really sharp focus, it’s not really good enough to tell people that you care,” she says.

The reality is that if there is a looming gap between the talk you talk and the walk you walk, “it rings hollow and you will be found out,” Walawalkar believes. With the work the agency are doing for Lifebuoy, she hopes that this shines through, that while there is no need to be continually serious – there is still space for light-hearted humour – what does need to happen is that “we are backing up everything that we do not just with a product on the shelf but with some sort of positive contribution to the society that we live in,” she says.

We are backing up everything that we do not just with a product on the shelf but with some sort of positive contribution to the society that we live in.

Ayesha Walawalkar

From a global community to a village

One of the most positive shifts that both Hamilton and Walawalkar feel has come out of the nationwide lockdown is the more local focus that people are taking. While the growth in online shopping is undeniable and, as Hamilton says, probably a “permanent shift,” there has also been an opposite trend appearing, a growing awareness of our local environments.

“We’ve gone from being, particularly in London and the South, this global community to really being a village again,” says Walawalkar. We’re more aware of the people around us and the shops that exist at the end of our street and the cafes we walk past every day. That, believes Walawalkar, “says to brands, if you’re going to make a difference and you can make a difference at a local level to people who need you, that is a lasting memory for those people; that’s how you build loyalty in the long term.”

For Lifebuoy, they have been operating at a tangible, local level by expanding the campaign to deliver hygiene kits with the NGO In Kind Direct to schools and the most deprived households. These are filled with educational advice as well as products.

Creating lasting behaviour change

Fundamentally, the Lifebuoy relaunch and subsequent campaign is around education and behavioural change. To encourage people to sanitise and wash their hands not just frequently, says Hamilton, but at “the times that really, really matter.” The understanding around sanitation needs to extend in the UK, she believes, beyond just the knowledge that you need to wash your hands and towards an awareness of the particular surfaces that carry the most germs.

Along with the communications campaign, the brand is introducing a primary schools hand washing education programme. This is something they have been running around the world for years, having reached one billion people globally in the last 10 years. Their goal with the UK campaign is to reach one million schoolchildren from September to December of this year.

Walawalkar feels that there is so much fear surrounding schools restarting, so much uncertainty from both parents and children about how safe they are and what the risks are. For the brand, they knew there was one thing they could do: “We can help schools teach children in a positive, non-scary way how you wash your hands, when you wash your hands…in a way we know has worked in other markets because if there’s one thing this brand does understand it’s how to create behaviour change.”

While she refers to the nightmare the crisis has plunged the nation into, Walawalkar also believes that it has “really focused the mind,” when it comes to communications. “Sometimes you need almost that crisis to move you into a new way of working,” she adds. The Lifebuoy relaunch is a lesson in working at speed, spotting the right moment and, at its heart, positively contributing to society.

Related Tags

Health Purpose