Unilever staff took part in DNA experiment to tackle unconscious bias – here's what they found out

Unilever's Dove bath foam in a Beijing supermarket.
Zhang Peng | LightRocket | Getty Images

Consumer goods giant Unilever has taken the unusual step of having some of its marketing staff read their own DNA profiles to see whether finding out about their heritage has an impact on their unconscious biases.

Ad agency staff also had their DNA analyzed, with 63 staff taking part in total in New York, London and Rotterdam, according to a statement emailed to CNBC. DNA data was anonymous to Unilever.

Unilever assessed employees' stereotypical thinking using an academic test before getting the results of the DNA tests that showed their heritage. Unilever worked with University College London, in order to adhere to academic protocols.

The DNA results provided information about employees' ancestry, and once they got the results, staff participated in a workshop to understand how stereotypes are learned and how the brain can "unlearn" them. People's stereotypes reduced "significantly" afterwards, according to Unilever.

Aline Santos (second left), Unilever's executive vice president of global marketing and global head of diversity and inclusion speaks on a panel at the Cannes Lions event in France, June 19 2018
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Aline Santos, Unilever's executive vice president, global marketing, and its chief diversity and inclusion officer, said the aim was for people to consider stereotypes of all kinds. "This is about people, so it's not only about one dimension of stereotypes which is gender, it's about sexual orientation, it's about religion, about everything that puts people in boxes," Santos told CNBC by phone.

Santos is Brazilian, but discovered her heritage is largely Italian. Some colleagues were surprised to learn that they had an Asian background, or that part of their family was Jewish, for example.

Unilever revealed the initiative on Monday at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in France, as part of its "unstereotype" program, which aims to remove bias from advertising whether that is related to gender, background, age or orientation.

Santos claimed that the exercise resulted in a 35 percent reduction in unconscious bias among the 63 people who took part and said the company would give other staff the chance to have their DNA tested.

In practise, this means a reappraisal of the communications strategy for some Unilever brands. Cleaning product Cif, for example, was traditionally targeted at housewives, or "family nurturers," Santos said. Cif redefined its audience as anyone who wants to have a "beautiful home," and of course marketing to this broader group should mean an increase in sales. It also swapped a boy who featured in a long-running campaign for Calve peanut butter in the Netherlands for a football-fanatic girl.

Unilever, like other consumer-goods companies, undertakes extensive testing of new products and advertising before they are launched, and Santos said that marketing science is "the new frontier" for marketers to better understand consumers' behavior.

Sexism in advertising is a hot topic in the industry, with new rules coming into effect in the U.K. on Friday. Britain's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) reviewed gender stereotyping in ads in 2018 and found that sexist portrayals can have an impact on the aspirations and choices of adults and children. As a result, the ASA will ban commercials that include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm or serious offense.

Santos has been tipped to succeed Keith Weed as Unilever's chief marketing and communications officer, but when asked, she said new CEO Alan Jope was considering how he might reorganize the company and no decisions had been made. Weed announced his retirement in December 2018 after 35 years with Unilever, and Jope succeeded Paul Polman as CEO in January.