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Does Lifebuoy Have the Best Corporate Social Responsibility Program?

Does Lifebuoy Have the Best Corporate Social Responsibility Program?

Sarah Steimer

My current nominee for the best social program ever is “Help A Child Reach 5,” a handwashing program sponsored by Unilever’s Lifebuoy soap, a brand that virtually disappeared from the U.S. a half century ago. Lifebuoy is far from dead internationally. The brand is dominating the market in India and other emerging countries and ranks fourth—falling only behind Coca-Cola, Colgate and Nestle’s Maggi food brand—among global brands, according to Kantar Worldpanel.

With “Help a Child Reach 5,” Lifebuoy’s mission is to save lives by spreading the importance of good handwashing habits around the world. The program’s mission is to get 1 billion people to develop better handwashing habits in order to prevent many of the 2 million deaths of kids under 5 that occur each year. The campaign is driven by two facts from Lifebuoy: 1.) Every year, 2 million children fail to reach their fifth birthday because of illnesses like diarrhea and pneumonia. 2.) Handwashing with soap at key occasions can reduce diarrhea by 45% and pneumonia by 23% worldwide, thus reducing infant deaths substantially.


A pivotal event in Lifebuoy’s “Help a Child Reach 5” effort was the implementation of a showcase program in Thesgora, a 1,500-home, diarrhea-prone Indian village. The program, which showed a reduction in diarrhea from 36% to 6%, helped Unilever decide to accelerate program expansion throughout India and in 24 other countries.

Lifebuoy executes the “Help A Child Reach 5” program with creativity and flare. In India, 1,500 Unilever employees have volunteered to help teach school children the importance of handwashing with the help of child-friendly materials, including comics, songs, games and rewards. The importance of washing for 20 seconds on five key occasions throughout the day is driven home using a device that illuminates germs that are still around after one handwashing session. The program doesn’t stop there, either. Unilever focuses its educational efforts on mothers, too, because over 40% of infant deaths in India occur during the first 28 days of life. Unilever retrofitted water pumps in villages so that children can embrace the habit more easily. The firm even put the phrase, “Did you wash your hands with Lifebuoy today?” on over 2.5 million pieces of flatbread called “rotis” during a Hindu holiday. Lifebuoy also leverages global Handwashing Day on Oct. 15th. On Global Handwashing Day in 2012, Lifebuoy’s office in Dubai set a Guinness World Record when they got people from 72 countries to simultaneously wash their hands.

Most remarkable of all were the many videos that Unilever created, each telling a story that illustrates the impact of this initiative on children, parents and communities as a whole.  Stories are the currency of content marketing and have become a hot topic with firm after firm, hiring editors, writers and videographers to find and record brand stories. It’s useful to look closely at two of these three-minute Lifebuoy viral video stories to see the success, firsthand, of the Lifebuoy program, and insight into what makes a good video story.

The first video, shot in Thesgora, has over 19 million views. The story inspiration came from a local practice of expressing gratitude by doing something like sacrificing a favored food or walking a long distance. In the film, a father is shown walking on his hands through fields, puddles and a stairway to the nearby temple, a considerable distance, to seek God’s blessing. Along the way we see real village people following him and playing music. We then learn that he is overcome with delight that his boy reached 5 years old. We see the emotional connection between the father and his boy, and we also learn about the 2 million children that die before their fifth birthdays and the Lifebuoy handwashing program.  

In the second video, which has over 11 million views, we are introduced to Utari, a women standing next to a tree. She waters it, dances by it, shoos away water buffalo, places a ribbon around it and stays next to the tree into the night. Why? In the middle of the video, her husband advises her to go to bed because tomorrow is a big day: Her son will turn 5. We then learn that it is a village custom to plant a tree when a child is born. After five years, many mothers have only a tree left because their children have died before reaching five. Utari is one of the lucky ones, and her worship of the tree is a way to reflect that gratitude. The video closes with an explanation of how the Lifebuoy handwashing program works to reduce those deaths.

Stories are much more impactful than facts but need to be seen to work their magic. Getting exposure requires a bit of luck, but the lucky ones tend to have exceptional content and quality. It helps to have an intriguing narrative with suspense, authentic characters, a surprising fact, and real emotions that draw people in. In addition, the video needs to be professional quality and deliver a relevant brand message.

“Help A Child Reach 5” is a winning social responsibility program. It has already reached more than 250 million people, and is on target to hit its goal of reaching 1 billion people by 2020. It certainly adds energy and a higher purpose to the brand, and generates social and emotional brand benefits as well.

In my view, there are four reasons why this program stands out: First, it attacks a visible, meaningful and emotional problem that is relevant to Unilever’s core international markets: the life expectancy of infants. And it does so with a concept (handwashing) that has demonstrative value. Second, the design and execution of the program is creative and effective. Kids and moms are taught and motivated to wash “the right way,” using a wide variety of tools and methods. Third, the videos are powerful and professionally done. The stories precipitated strong emotions, drawing people in who were curious about the very real characters, and who were surprised to learn of the global tragedy of infant deaths. Fourth, the program and videos are intricately tied to Lifebuoy as handwashing suggests the use of Lifebuoy soap. Further, the linkage draws on Lifebuoy’s heritage as a disease-fighting soap product. Although other organizations are also active in the handwashing movement, Lifebuoy, for many, has become the exemplar.

Sarah Steimer is a writer, editor, podcast producer, and yoga teacher living in Chicago. She has written for Marketing News, Chicago magazine, Culture magazine, the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette, and other outlets.