There’s no denying that that 2020 has been an exceptionally turbulent time. You only have to browse the headlines to see just how much Covid-19 has forced businesses to react and adapt quickly to new ways of working. If someone had said to me at the start of the year that I would have been completing almost half of my training contract from home, I wouldn’t have believed it. But I have to say, despite it all, it’s a pretty exciting time to be a trainee on client secondment in Unilever’s Global Homecare Team.
Historically, Homecare has been the smaller of Unilever’s three divisions (Homecare, Beauty and Personal Care and Food & Refreshment), accounting for around 20% of its overall business. And when you think about the high calibre brands in Homecare such as Domestos, CIF and Comfort, that really brings into perspective how big the business really is. But joining the Homecare team in August 2020, at a time where consumer attitudes have changed so drastically as a result of international lockdowns, means I have joined the Division that has quite suddenly become a massive area of focus and opportunity for Unilever’s business. While demand for ice cream, hair products and deodorant (apparently?!) falls, the need for disinfectants and sanitation products are at the forefront of consumers’ minds.
This means I have had the opportunity to get involved with some very interesting work during the first half of my secondment, all of which has been very relevant to the times that we are all in. For example, fear of the pandemic means that the sale of hygiene products such as bleach or surface cleaners has soared this year, which has led businesses to make claims about the efficacy of their products at killing viruses, including coronavirus. But to make these claims requires technical support and my role at Unilever has involved monitoring competitor claims to ensure they are not taking unfair advantage of consumer fear to gain sales. This has led to my involvement in various contentious challenges to ensure that such unsubstantiated communications are removed from the market. Conversely, the current pandemic has also presented opportunities for business growth in Homecare, which has led to my involvement in strategy meetings relating to product changes or new product launches that will ensure consumer needs are met at all levels of the market, internationally. I’ve assisted by reviewing claims made on artwork and in communications, and by assisting in IP searches for the global trademark portfolio. But the pandemic has also provided opportunities for businesses to collaborate on purposeful projects. I have assisted by reviewing and negotiating contracts, for example relating to Unilever’s collaboration with National Geographic Kids to “bring the adventure inside” and create fun indoor activities for families that are trying to educate and entertain their children while in lockdown.
But notwithstanding the massive changes resulting from Covid-19, Unilever has continued to maintain its focus on other Global issues, not least of all the climate crisis. In June 2020, the Homecare Division launched “Clean Futures”, a €1bn investment in a pledge to radically overhaul its business and produce net zero emissions from Unilever’s homecare products by 2039. This means sustainable sourcing, breaking reliance on fossil fuels and the creation of biodegradable and water-efficient formulations, in a way that maintains affordability for the consumer. This led to my involvement in the relaunch of OMO (or Persil, in the UK), which has a new formulation containing plant-based stain removers as the brand begins efforts to replace fossil fuel-derived ingredients (black carbon) with other sources, such as plant-based ingredients (green carbon). My involvement has been to review the new artwork and marketing claims, to ensure they are properly substantiated and transparent to consumers, and to assist in the alignment of our claims framework and technical support across the international launch markets.
I’m really glad that I was fortunate to have been seconded to Unilever at this time, when I am witnessing first-hand a really inspirational business combat the biggest international issues of the times. Working with the Homecare Team has massively improved my commerciality and understanding of how the market and consumer habits can drive change and growth in business. I’d really recommend the opportunity to anyone looking to improve their commercial awareness, where you’ll see how your contribution to the Legal Team can truly have a wider impact on real-life issues.