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Stakeholder Engagement Lessons from Unilever's Lifebuoy Brand

Every year, more than 2.1 million children do not live to celebrate their fifth birthday because of diarrhoea and pneumonia. And yet, there is consistent evidence that the simple act of handwashing with soap at critical times can reduce diarrhoeal risk by about 45%1.

This is the prime motivation for Global Handwashing Day (, established in 2008 by the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing to increase the awareness, understanding and practice of this life-saving habit. 

Unilever is one of the members of the Global Partnership, and its Lifebuoy brand (the world’s biggest health soap, has been one of the driving forces behind Global Handwashing Day (GHD). Campaigning to save lives through handwashing is in the brand’s DNA – it’s where its name came from in the first place when it was introduced in the late 19th Century to help prevent the spread of diseases like cholera in the overcrowded cities of northern England. And Lifebuoy is clear about the business benefit of promoting a habit that will help it sell more soap.

Lifebuoy’s plans for October 15th 2011 (GHD is on the same day each year) focused on four areas:

  • Media relations (both nationally and via influential global blogs)
  • Events (to generate news and direct involvement)
  • Endorsement and advocacy (from governments and celebrities)
  • Pledging (to encourage involvement and behaviour change)

To do this, Lifebuoy had to mobilise a number of groups.

First, the internal Lifebuoy teams.  Around the world, 14 countries and Lifebuoy brand teams with varying communications capabilities and different media landscapes planned to undertake PR activities for October 15th. A toolkit of low-cost, repeatable, scalable activations was created to give them all they needed to make an impact and build Lifebuoy’s authority as an expert on health and hygiene in their country.

A key part of the strategy was to encourage each country to work with people who could extend the reach of their communications. In July 2011, governments of more than 50 countries in Africa were approached at AfricaSan in Rwanda and asked to pledge to support GHD.   In Kenya, for example, Lifebuoy partnered with the Ministries of Health and Education to celebrate GHD and over 63,000 people washed their hands simultaneously in different locations to attempt to break the Guinness World Record.

In Bangladesh, Lifebuoy co-hosted a handwashing event with the Government, and eighteen million school children took part in GHD.  In Sri Lanka, Lifebuoy partnered with TV stars who sang the Lifebuoy handwashing song, resulting in one million pledges across the country (including by the First Lady), while in Indonesia, the Ministry of Health led a pledging event with 600 government officials.  And in Pakistan, a high-impact PR launch featuring Wasim Akram generated  more than 20 national media hits and one million school children put their hands up to pledge towards handwashing before eating.

Secondly, the broader Unilever community was targeted to get involved.   All 170,000 Unilever staff worldwide were alerted to GHD and invited to participate. In India, for example, normal work was suspended across the business on 14th October, the Friday before GHD.  1,100 volunteers spent the day in 123 schools across India, reaching 14,000 children. 

A third group to mobilise to raise handwashing on the global agenda, were high-profile bloggers in public health and development. The blogger campaign focused on the connection between promoting handwashing and meeting Millennium Development Goal 4, reducing child mortality by two thirds by 2015.  Posts about GHD in blogs including the Huffington Post blog (, reached an audience in excess of 51 million.

The other purpose of the blogger campaign was to encourage traffic to a special GHD pledging section of the Lifebuoy Facebook page.  Through Facebook and live events, over 25 million people pledged to wash their hands with soap before eating (more than double the original target).

All these groups – employees and schoolchildren, governments and celebrities – came together for GHD because they shared a desire to tackle the debilitating but preventable diseases that blight many parts of the world.  In total, the media coverage for Lifebuoy’s GHD activities reached over 250 million people, thanks to the co-ordinated efforts of these different groups. They were able to do so because they had simple yet powerful tools to make their voice heard. 

[1] CHERG 2010. Sandy Cairncross, Caroline Hunt, Sophie Boisson, Kristof Bostoen, Val Curtis, Isaac CH Fung, and Wolf-Peter Schmidt  Water, sanitation and hygiene for the prevention of diarrhoea.Int. J. Epidemiol. 2010 39: i193-i205.


Andy Last is the co-founder of MullenLowe salt and author of Business on a Mission: How to Build a Sustainable Branddescribed by Unilever CEO, Paul Polman, as “A timely reminder that the… [Read more about Andy Last]

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