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Social Native
Marketing Mix Podcast with Hanneke Willenborg

Hanneke Willenborg talks breaking taboos with honest marketing

February 13, 2019

Joining us on the Marketing Mix Podcast with Jeff Ragovin is Hanneke Willenborg, the CMO of Seventh Generation. Hanneke describes her journey at Unilever, the importance of transparency in marketing and global developments in purposeful purchasing. Hanneke stands for a consumer’s right to know what goes into their products, and discusses Seventh Generation’s role in driving awareness towards product transparency.

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Jeff Ragovin: Talk to us about your career so far.

Hanneke Willenborg: I started off back in the day in Unilever in the Netherlands. Since then Unilever proved to be an amazing travel agent for me and my career has gone across countries, across categories and across continents. One of my stops was Ben and Jerry’s in Vermont where I was called the brand mother.

Jeff Ragovin: What exactly did that involve?

Hanneke Willenborg: Most of my responsibilities at Ben & Jerry’s were looking at  how we were going to create a reputable model. When I joined, Ben and Jerry’s was a very established brand in the US but we hadn’t really figured out how were going to replicate that success in other markets. Most of the work I did was looking at how we could bring the magic that we created in Vermont, and replicate that in a market like Singapore, where the starting point is so different.

I had a good understanding about different roles that companies could play in driving a better world, and in those four years in Ben & Jerry’s I deeply internalized that. It really convinced me that companies have a big role to play in how we want to craft our societies going forward. It’s so important to truly offer value in today’s world, instead of only delivering on shareholder growth. I took that experience back into the homecare category in Europe where I was working as the Global Brand VP in different Unilever brands. At that point in time, I knew Vermont, social business and the Unilever homecare category. Five years later, when Unilever announced the acquisition of Seventh Generation, I put my hand up and asked to be picked... and that was one of the most wonderful things that happened to me.

I was the first person to come into Seventh Generation from the big corporate world of Unilever after the acquisition, and I didn’t really expect a red carpet to be rolled out for me-  since I assumed most people in their community would rather have kept their independence. But in all 22 years of my career, I have never had such an amazingly warm welcome. That is just because of what the community is all about. It’s a team of about 260 people who are so deeply passionate about caring for each other, caring for the world and caring to leave the world a better place. That’s how they extended the love and care towards me. It has been an amazing ride in the last two years, and it’s a brand that has a lot of potential.

Jeff Ragovin: You guys are doing a lot of stuff that helps our planet and society through products, one of the biggest being your ad campaign with Maya Rudolph. Can you give us more details on that?

Hanneke Willenborg: We’ve always advocated for ingredient transparency. One of the most important legacies we want to leave as a company is the idea that people have a right to know what’s in their products. That made us extremely strong advocates of the “Cleaning Products Right to Know” Act that was eventually approved in California at the end of 2017. This had huge consequences in terms of the transparency that all producers need to give around what they put on their back labels. And we were hugely proud of that. 

That’s not only true for our cleaning products. That’s also true for our feminine care products. We know that vaginal tissue is one of the most sensitive body parts of a woman. In total, we use these products in total for around 4 years of our lives! So we found it very important that producers need to put all of their ingredients out there so women can make a decision for themselves about what product they want to use. With this insight, we created a campaign with Maya Rudolph called Va-jingle in 2016, where Maya was basically singing about how you have a right to know what is in the ingredients of your tampons. That got a lot of responses, both positive and negative. For instance, people even commented that we shouldn’t be using the word “vagina” in a piece of advertising! For context, we published this piece of work before the #MeToo movement and before all the cultural conversations around women’s marches. We were quite ahead of our time in 2016 about having a right to know and talking about vaginas.

Jeff Ragovin: What was Maya’s role in the production and thinking behind the commercial?

Hanneke Willenborg:  All of our work on this campaign was co-created between Maya and our creative agency, 72&Sunny. She felt really good about taking this on, and both 72&Sunny and Seventh Generation felt the same way. Based on both the positive and negative responses to this campaign, we had a lot of internal conversations about what we believed- and came to the conclusion that if you cannot call it out, then you cannot protect it. So we doubled down to make sure that we continue to drive awareness to this issue. For us, the root cause of the issue is not solved until there is a legislation around the need to disclose ingredients in this category. We came up with what we call the V word- the attention grabbing aspect of the campaign is definitely around the word vagina. We had really positive engagement with our target audience of young women, and we’re very happy we put this information out there. 

Jeff Ragovin: Do you think consumers will start to have “purpose-fatigue” in the new era of every brand actually finding a purpose?

Hanneke Willenborg: No, I actually think the opposite.  More and more people are going to put their dollars towards brands that have aligned values. However, I think we always need to be careful when defining the word purpose. For Seventh Generation, it’s not about being a brand with a purpose. It’s looking at what we as an organization deeply care about and how we’re going to change the root causes of that.

As I said before, we believe in transparency, and we really advocate to change the industry in terms of coming up with new legislations around consumers having the right to know. We’re not doing this because we believe in purpose marketing, we’re doing this because we want to drive change that we believe in. I think this is important to call out. If you ask people today if they would rather buy from companies with a mission that aligns with their values, I think that quite a big percentage of people are saying yes. However, we do need to look at what we call the say-do gap, what are people saying they’re going to do vs. what they actually do? As an industry, we’re asking people to make too many trade-offs in order to make the “right” choices- either by paying more, or compromising in different ways. What we’re really keen on at Seventh Generation is that people don’t have to make those trade-offs anymore. They can have amazing products that are really clean, don’t end up costing a lot more- and really drive the health of our planet, environment and people’s well being at the same point in time. That’s really the industry change that we want to seek to make it easier for consumers to make the change from conventional brands to cleaner and greener options.

Jeff Ragovin: When you market to different regions and different cultures, what are some of the top things to keep in mind when it comes to leading messaging with purpose?

Hanneke Willenborg: The starting point we have in the US is different, because the company has been operating here for 30 years and we were the green leader in this space, which gives us a lot of authority and a lot of credibility for the messages that we have. When we project ourselves to different countries where there may be other green players, the dynamics of the market and where people are in their adaptation curve is really informing us on how we want to optimize the mix we want to launch with locally. 

The adaptation curve discusses the cycle that people go through in order to move into cleaner and greener products. They start with what is called the “in-me” category, which revolves around the products people eat, to the “on-me” category which mostly includes personal care, and finally they go into the “around me” category. We really look at markets to see how many people are buying organic milk or free-range meat, for example. Once people are making those steps, we know that they will start taking steps towards the on me and around me categories in which seventh generation is playing.

Jeff Ragovin: How has Seventh Generation evolved as a brand in the last 30 years, and where do you see that going into the future?

Hanneke Willenborg: One of the things that we acknowledge at Seventh Generation is that sustainability is a journey. We are very proud of the impact that we have had in the industry that we are operating in over the past 30 years. But we are also very mindful about the fact that we are still on our journey as well, and there a lot of things that we would still like to see accomplished and achieved- not only in the products we make ourselves, but also in our ability to influence the wider industry around us. 

Jeff Ragovin: What keeps you up at night, and what fires you up when you come into work in the morning?

Hanneke Willenborg: The rising equity of the system that we are operating in is what keeps me up at night. The climate challenges we are facing is another. Our ability as a society to keep a grip on the boundaries our planet is held together by continues to diminish. What gets me up in the morning is my ability to work at a company and for a brand a company where I feel like I can add meaningful input on the things that I worry about.

Last year we started our climate justice campaign, where we partnered with Sierra Club. Together, we managed to move a hundred cities to sign the act of being one hundred percent renewable by 2030. Due to the actions of the Sierra Club and us supporting them in their journey, by 2030, 48 million people will have guaranteed access to cities that will be running a hundred percent renewable. This is the equivalent of taking thirty fossil fuel energy plants out of the US. I get so excited about accomplishments like that- this means that I work in a company where even if I worry about certain things, I have the ability to truly make an impact, which is absolutely amazing. This is not just true for me, but is true for every person that works for Seventh Generation. This is why the community cares so much about the planet that we are going to leave for our children, our children’s children and the next seven generations.

 Jeff Ragovin: Thank you for joining the Marketing Mix Podcast.

Please note, the above has been paraphrased for editorial purposes