The news of the unlikely union of a leftist news publisher famed recently for exposing online government spying antics with a nutrition, hygiene and personal care behemoth marks a landmark move for corporate content marketing.

In my opinion, Unilever’s decision to task The Guardian with its content marketing is a pertinent and gutsy move on the global FMCG brand owner’s part. This isn’t business storytelling, it’s addressing trust in a thoroughly entrenched brand in a very open way.

Now, how you position your moral compass on this deal – and, more to the point, how you foresee The Guardian’s reputation suffer – is your call. There’s no denying that the partnership does offer some striking conflicts of interest.

Trust and openness

To explain more, Unilever has signed a ‘seven-figure agreement’ with Guardian Labs, the publisher’s new content marketing agency arm, and incidentally the 133-strong team’s first ever job, to sponsor The Guardian’s Sustainable Business section. In doing so, Unilever gets a big Guardian-wide PR campaign geared at softening opinions on a multinational company that has been attacked in the past for its environmental policies.

In other words, it’s not a native advertising campaign, but a content marketing strategy. Creative content is softening Unilever’s public image while raising trust and awareness of its renewed drive. Unilever branding is there, but not shoved in your face. The content is informative – almost advertorial in its nature, but there’s no direct sell – it speaks to the savvy, modern, digital masses on a more honest level, and considers strongly Unilever’s sustainability commitment. And that is a quite a commitment when you’re effectively subjecting yourself to the checks, balances and accountability levied on an independent journalistic organisation like The Guardian. For all its sins, Unilever is being perhaps uncharacteristically transparent here.

The Guardian is being criticised for compromising its journalistic obligations and independence, but I think the more obvious conflict has left people unable to see the wood from the trees. There’s always been an advertising and PR arm to the newspaper and there’s always been a journalistic arm; there’d be outrage if the former were to compromise the latter and I doubt that’s happening here. Indeed, The Guardian makes no bones about the fact it’s losing its print journalism revenue, and if it’s not going down the subscription-only route like The Times or Financial Times, then where else can it go? Monetisable creativity and a global reach seems a pretty good use of its resources in this respect, and it’s not like any reader with half a brain can’t tell when a Unilever-sponsored Sustainable Business piece pops up. Indeed, one should be encouraged by Unilever’s welcome pledge to what we hope is a greater good.

Bigger pictures

The debate reminds me of the one Film4 found itself in more than a decade ago. By the early-2000s, the film production company and TV channel owned by Channel 4 Television Corporation, and which broadcast a paid subscription service showing back-to-back movies on satellite and cable TV, was losing money and had its budget cut. Money that it would invest in the British film industry, as it had since 1982. It was a genuinely worrying time for British movies.

The film company was thus re-integrated into Channel 4 to allow it to continue investing and by 2006 the channel was re-introduced as a free service on digital terrestrial TV. Film4 could once again show back-to-back movies, now to the free-viewing public. To do this, it had to incorporate commercial breaks. There was much hoo-ha at the time about how acceptable/outrageous this was, but given that Film4 increased its reach from 300,000 to 18 million televisions nationwide, most people accepted that you can’t have your cake and eat it, and instead used the time wisely by introducing kettle to tea bag. The ends of having ad breaks surely justified the means, and Film4 Productions recently invested in some ditty called 12 Years a Slave, which seemed to turn out pretty well for everyone.

As far as The Guardian is concerned, the whole debacle appears little less sinister than selling space in the Classifieds. Superficially at least, the deal doesn’t seem to be the surreptitious inception of the Unilever-is-green-and-definitely-not-evil message that many might suspect. Rather, it’s a somewhat ballsy content marketing strategy that not only flies in the face of common opinion, making people sit up and take notice of Unilever’s and other brands’ sustainability efforts, but also positions Unilever (and The Guardian, for that matter) firmly in the firing line. It’s a big statement and a corporate content marketing strategy that talks the talk. Let’s hope its orchestrators walk the walk.