The $170 billion corporate empire has been trying to prove corporations can do well by doing good. It goes like this. Rub your left palm with your right hand, then clap, now right, clap, up, down, thumbs, knuckles, clap. Then repeat, scrubbing vigorously. The 200 or so children present on a muggy May morning, ages 8 to 10, know the routine by heart. Dressed in tidy uniforms of white short-sleeved shirts, red scarves, and matching tartan shorts, they leap from their plastic stools to mimic the six teenage instructors up front with impressive precision, shimmying up and down. The choreography, part of a campaign developed with Unilever’s behavioral scientists, manages to be at once cute and corporate. On the way out, the students are encouraged to pick up free Lifebuoy soap and P/S toothpaste at the school clinic. Naturally, it’s all made by Unilever.
Few corporations can claim to have done more to shape consumers’ habits. The Anglo-Dutch conglomerate’s 19th century founders popularized the bar of soap. Unilever pioneered the fish finger, frozen peas, and the commercialization of margarine. The first-ever advertisement on British TV was for Unilever toothpaste. Today the company makes Hellmann’s mayonnaise, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Axe deodorant, and Dove soap, among hundreds of other products it says are used by 2.5 billion people every day. Virtually everyone reading this sentence has a half-dozen or more Unilever items at home right now.
It’s a $170 billion empire that would seem to encourage conservatism. What is formally known as the fast-moving (as opposed to durable) consumer goods industry is, actually, resistant to change. There are tight margins achieved by epic economies of scale, and for companies the size of Unilever, wins tend to be incremental: a catchy bit of marketing here, a better spot on the shelf there. And yet the handwashing dance is a small part of a vast experiment with few parallels in the recent history of business.
Under Chief Executive Officer Paul Polman, Unilever is seeking to espouse a trendy sentiment—that it’s possible to make more money by acting virtuously—on a global stage. That means selling environmentally friendly detergent, installing thousands of water pumps in African villages, even removing gender stereotypes from advertising. The initiatives are tied together by two arguments. First, that ethically discerning shoppers in the developed world—or, less charitably, Gwyneth Paltrow among the urban bourgeoisie—are willing to pay a premium for products that do less harm to the planet. And second, that encouraging health and happiness in emerging markets will turn millions of the global poor into consumers for the first time. In theory, they’ll be loyal to the brands that sought them out.