Bad Marketers Make Bad Consumers
6 min read

Does bad marketing make bad consumers? When we were faced with a challenge inside Unilever, we applied the thinking that the social scientist Clifford Scott had used to study the behavior of English hooligans, to transform the way 7000 marketeers thought.

There was a time when hosting European football championships was a worry for nations, certainly when the English were involved. The English hooligans could show the sort of unified resolve their team has historically lacked, roaming wild, smashing shop windows, beating up bystanders, and battling riot police wielding batons, fire hoses, and tear gas.  

According to most social scientists, this reality was both logical and historically unavoidable, as English hooligans embodied the working-class aggression known as the English Disease. 

Luckily for football, Clifford Scott, a social psychologist at the University of Liverpool, challenged this thinking, claiming that the issue to address was less about the hooligans and more about how to police the hooligans. In short, he stated; bad police make bad fans.

Putting his theories into practice, Clifford Scott and his colleagues designed an experiment during the 2004 European Football Championship in Portugal. In one part of the country, he and his team trained the police to interact positively with fans, to treat them with consideration, and to do what they could to meet fans legitimate needs

Makes human sense to me. 


In another part of the country, the team made no intervention and traditional public order tactics were used. These involved maintaining an intimidating presence on the streets and deploying “zero tolerance” tactics.

Scott then examined the dynamics of interactions between the police and England fans in these two areas. In the area where Scott had intervened, there were certainly occasions when individuals acted aggressively. But in no case did they exert influence over other fans and so the police found them relatively easy to manage. By contrast, in the area where traditional methods were used, there was a growing antagonism between police and supporters. In particular, there were two occasions where the police champed down indiscriminately on England fans after some started behaving rowdily. When some supporters responded by attacking the police, others joined in. They felt attacked as a group and responded as a group. On both occasions, this dynamic led to full-blown riots. 

To solve this dynamic, Clifford Scott focused on changing the police first before focusing on trying to change the dynamics of the fans or hooligans. He focused on selecting and training a different type of police. He trained them to know more about what matters to the fans and the teams they support, he selected and trained a crew of liaison officers for their social skills rather than their riot control skills: friendliness and ability to banter. Today, Scott’s theories and practices are famed for taming the English hooligans at football tournaments across Europe. The key to policing riots was to essentially stop policing riots. Scott focused on letting both the English fans and police feel that they are together in this. He focused on creating bonds of collaboration and support between them rather than war-like competition.    

 The question you must be asking right now, I assume, is, “what has this got to do with making marketing more noble again?”

Crafting brands for life.

When Paul Polman became the CEO of Unilever, he proposed a vision around making sustainable living commonplace to help shape future growth ambitions. Paul Polman outlined that business growth should benefit all people, and the next generation of people too – not just shareholders. He understood that business and brands have a powerful role to play in creating sustainable living habits and as the second-biggest advertiser in the world, with more than 400 brands who together strive to improve 4 billion lives by 2020, he called upon his marketing- and brands leaders to help make sustainable living commonplace. He was well aware that Unilever could not achieve these goals alone, that they would need to engage other stakeholders in this transformation. They would need to get others to step into the same boat and feel that they are together in this. 

Marc Mathieu was the senior vice president for marketing at the time. He loved this type of challenge and his job was to help turn Paul Polman’s vision into a marketing reality. He called upon our business humanizing skills to help him transform and onboard 7000 marketers and together make marketing more human and noble again.   

Clearly, marketers are not the police and consumers are not hooligans, at best they are fans, but the work of Scott on English hooligans inspired us in many ways. To make sustainability commonplace, we first had to change the way marketers think and create value, so they could weave sustainability into people’s living realities. And into the normal working practices of Unilever. We had to nurture the marketer’s abilities to ‘feel and imagine’ better ways to improve the lives of the people they serve. We had to nurture the marketer’s abilities to relate differently to the people they serve. We had to sharpen their empathy skills just like the newly trained police had to do. They needed to see consumers as people first and understand how they wanted to better their world, not just Unilever’s business context. To do, so we developed a “People immersions”-program and a Brand Deep Dive-process. The program was designed to help craft brands that stand up for more meaningful goals and more meaningful connections. Like was the case for fighting English hooligans, the Unilever marketers had to see their job as the noble art of interacting with care and consideration.

Today Unilever is a different company, a loved company that continues to succeed in diverse ways. Many of the marketers who participated in the change-program, shared with us that, learning to create value again as people for people, was a turning point in their career. It unlocked their contributive capacities and their desire to drive more meaningful growth. Ten years since the program was implemented, Unilever has all the hard evidence that putting people and purpose first, works. The brands that delivered best on people and purpose delivered best for the business too. Getting into the same boat as the people they served transformed the way Unilever built brands. And Unilever became a company where young people wanted to work again.

Paul Polman decided that Unilever can do better by solving bigger, more meaningful issues, something he plans to do a lot more of in his next venture. His greatest contribution was to create a high purpose-environment that encourages people to make a difference. There is still a lot to do but the direction has been set. 


Christophe Fauconnier
Founder & CEO