Inside Lifebuoy’s mission to get the world handwashing

The Drum 13 May 2020 11:01
Unilever soap brand Lifebuoy set out on a mission to educate one billion people about handwashing by 2020.

10 years ago, Unilever soap brand Lifebuoy set out on a mission to educate one billion people about handwashing by 2020. The brand has hit its target, just as the coronavirus pandemic began – and put humble handwashing on the agenda.

Over the last decade, while social media users in developed markets laughed at the notion that people needed to be told to wash their hands, Lifebuoy expanded its education and social responsibility efforts from emerging markets to countries like the UK, one of the countries now worst-hit by the virus.

Lifebuoy set what it called an ‘audacious target’ of educating 1 billion people about hand washing by 2020 back in 2010, as part of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP). The target was set based on the finding that one child dies from pneumonia or diarrhoea every 23 seconds somewhere in the world; education around handwashing could potentially play a large part in reducing such fatalities.

“All the work Lifebuoy is doing to reduce the spread of the outbreak is inspired and driven by the brand’s purpose of saving lives and helping people fall ill a little less often. We mobilized quickly and acted at speed following public health guidelines to raise awareness of handwashing with soap as a key measure to stay protected,” he says.

“Within 12 hours of news of the outbreak, we collaborated across our teams to coordinate a response. Our message was clear: wash your hands with soap, not just Lifebuoy, but any soap, even that of our competitors – something we’ve never done before. Within 24 hours this public service announcement was shared all over the world. We’ve reached 1 billion households already and will continue to amplify it wherever and whenever we can,” he says.

Despite renewed efforts and heightened demand, hygiene education is nothing new for Lifebuoy. While the last 10 years have been all about scaling-up on its mission, it’s had over 125 years of experience using education as a marketing tool.

“In 2010, Lifebuoy launched the ’Help a Child Reach 5’ campaign, designed to change hygiene behaviours and reduce child mortality rates instilling good handwashing habits across the world. We started off in three countries and have now reached 1 billion people in 30+ countries, making this the largest behaviour change program in the world through on-ground programmes and communication.”

“I’d like to stress that this pandemic is bad for us, as individuals, as a society as a global economy and as Unilever. We are doing everything possible alongside our governments and public health organizations to help minimize and end it.

Authenticity is important to Singh. In fact, it’s the first part of three pieces of advice that he offers to brands that want to play a role in social responsibility marketing or public service messaging.

Singh says responsibility is actually an expectation during tougher times as people lean on brands and institutions to do the right thing. He says this is the anchor for being neutral in the soap people use and links to government resources.

Scaling the partnership with the UK government to reach one billion people is next on the agenda; the brand has sought an extensive list of channels and partnerships to do this. It launched a ’#dothelifebuoy’ challenge globally on TikTok to help people understand the correct duration and method for washing hands, which has hit over 50 billion views. It’s launched myth-busting content on Facebook and Google, with its influencer campaign on Instagram reaching over 8m views.

“When we first embarked on our public service information campaign, we were conscious of the important role we can play in propagating proper hand hygiene habits in the wake of the scale of this pandemic. However, no matter how important messages are, we know people become desensitised to them after a while and thus we are looking at different ways to keep people engaged and reminding them of the importance of hand hygiene,” he explains.

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