In 2006, I was fortunate enough to land a job that enabled me to put my academic research into practice. Not that unusual maybe, but it seemed so at the time, given that I had conducted much of my research (for a doctorate in public health) camped in public latrines in Senegal and East Timor observing people’s behavior as they used public sanitary facilities, and the job I landed was with a multinational corporation which at the time had a market capitalization of 60 billion euros.

My job is Global Social Mission Director for Lifebuoy soap, part of Unilever. And my task, along with many other colleagues and partners, is to work with a social mission to drive business growth.

Every year, two million children do not live to celebrate their fifth birthdays because of diarrhea and pneumonia. The simple act of handwashing with soap can save lives. In fact, handwashing with soap is one of the most effective and low cost ways to reduce what are two of the biggest causes of child mortality.

We have created a very clear link between tackling this critical issue and our business ambitions. The social issue is clear: too many children die before their fifth birthday, something Millennium Development Goal 4 targets to reduce. The business opportunity for us is equally clear: the ideal consumption for regular handwashing (to reduce illness and mortality) is around 20 bars of soap per year, yet 1.5 billion people around the world consume eight bars or fewer per year. This opportunity is even more marked because of the very rapid pace of change in these emerging markets.

Businesses often find it difficult to mention these two objectives in the same breath: how can you possibly equate stopping children dying with increasing sales and profits? Our experience tells us that you have to do that. When I was starting on my journey with Unilever, we spoke to the Financial Times about the work we were doing to change handwashing behaviors in Uganda. The article positioned what we were doing in a very balanced way, but under the headline “Unilever Looks to Clean Up in Africa.” At the time this made me feel very uncomfortable, coming as I did from a strong social public sector background (a UN child raised to look out for the interests of the poorest of the poor) and as an African. The idea that this large multinational was coming to clean up Africa felt almost colonial. But in reality, using local brands that people know and trust can actually be one of the most comfortable and easily accepted approaches to educate them about a topic like hygiene.

Looking back, being painfully transparent about our vested commercial interest in tackling a social issue was essential for two reasons.

First, it built credibility for us externally. Any journalist worth her salt would question whether a business would really behave purely philanthropically, and the governments and NGOs we wanted to partner with were reassured we would be in it for the long haul because of our business motivation, not because we’d just spotted a partnership as another opportunity for publicity.

Secondly, it released positive energy and momentum inside our business. Many people in the company wanted (and continue to want) to get involved in our mission because they have a genuine desire to give something back and make the world a better place and to feel pride in the company they work for. Many others simply want to do their job successfully and sell more soap. Our clear message and transparency ensured everyone was motivated and mobilized behind us.

This purpose and the opportunity it represents has meant shifting the focus of our market development towards a model that integrates hygiene into the lifestyles of some of the world’s poorest and most remote populations. We’ve committed to help one billion people improve their health and hygiene habits by 2015, and we’re investing millions of euros and some of our best marketing talent to achieve this. We have developed our own behavior change program to reach people (mothers and children) for whom the habit of handwashing can be a life-saver, tackling the barriers to regular handwashing with soap at key occasions, like before eating or after using the toilet. We partner with NGOs and charities through our Unilever Foundation including PSI (a global health organization), the Millennium Village Project and UNICEF along with governments across the world to deliver and scale-up effective programs.

And today, October 15th, is Global Handwashing Day, a day Unilever co-founded five years ago with our competitors and the Public Private Partnership for Handwashing (PPPHW). The day is recognized by the United Nations and celebrated at events across the world as a focal point to spread this healthy habit. It’s also a moment for us to reflect on what’s been achieved already. It’s still early days, but we’ve already seen a tangible correlation between business success and social change. The brand has grown from a €300 million brand to a €500 million+ brand today, while the number of childhood deaths from diarrhea has dropped significantly from 2.2 million to 0.75 million in the same time frame. Of course we would never claim responsibility for such a significant drop in child mortality, but it’s clearly moving in the right direction.

The heritage of our business did give us inspiration for our mission. William Lever, who founded Lever Brothers, one of the forerunners of Unilever, launched Lifebuoy soap in the northwest of England in 1894. He wanted to produce an affordable soap that people living in the overcrowded slums of Liverpool (which had experienced a rapid population influx as the second city of the British Empire) could use to protect themselves from the spread of cholera. He saw a business opportunity in a social issue.

This heritage was a nice-to-have for us, but it’s not a prerequisite. Any business can find a social purpose that can drive growth, and there are some lessons that we have learned that apply more broadly:

  • Right from the outset, align social mission activities with the business strategy, and be honest (‘painfully transparent’) about how the business will benefit. Ensure this is built into everything from marketing and communications to procurement and of course discussions around partnerships.
  • Build world-class expertise across multiple disciplines to deliver world-class intervention programs at scale. Apply common business sense, but don’t expect to drive intervention programs through business alone. To be cost-effective at scale, you need be innovative with the channels that you use and the partnerships that you create. Take note of what additional expertise and resources will be needed and then bring together the best skills you can find in both the business and social sectors. For example, engage with experts to build multidisciplinary skills across behavioral sciences to complement marketing expertise.
  • Secure support and endorsement from your parent company. Where possible, align with your umbrella company’s overarching sustainability and, even more importantly, business plan. This is the only way to ensure tangible commitment and long-term success.