It is a fitting backdrop for Wake to stress on Unilever’s corporate social responsibility (CSR). They are still in the hard-nosed business of running the world’s consumer goods giant and reaping profits, but Wake said it makes good business sense to give back to the community they serve.

“We have an obligation in this part of the world – where there are some very poor people – to not just run a business, but to give back to the community. It is a different way of thinking about brands, and marketing them,” said Wake who has worked in Asia for the past five years.

Along with other top Unilever executives, Wake has been exposed to the challenges that communities face. Two years ago, Wake and her colleagues spent a week in India, where they visited different groups of people in various locations.

“I spent three days in a farm in Rajkot, where it rains 30 days in a year. The water source was a well, and the women had to walk 5km to fetch water. We were there to visit a dam project started by a local who came back to the village to improve the community’s lives. He also set up a school for girls to be educated up to the age of 16.

“We were there as volunteers, not managers. It was a good experience because egos got broken down,” Wake recalled.

This year, Unilever top executives went to Sri Lanka to visit communities devastated by last December’s tsunami.

“There was only so much we could do in three days. We played cricket with the children, but we learnt tremendously from the experience. It was incredibly touching; you cannot help but get in touch with your humanity,” said Wake.

The experience makes for better managers, she added, because it makes people look at each other as “human beings, not business beings.”

Exposure to social conditions will also influence the way Unilever managers market their products, stressed Wake, whose approach centres not only on selling products, but also on how Unilever goods could contribute to the customers’ well being.

In Malaysia, the marketing strategy for Knorr cubes, for example, focuses on empowering women.

“It is about understanding the Malaysian woman, and her struggles to be a woman in her own right. We can give recipes on how to use Knorr, but we wanted to give something more. We held road shows in local communities in Kelantan and Pahang where we set up booths. There were cooking demonstrations and talks by the local police on personal safety.

“People enjoyed the road shows. About 10,000 attended them. We get letters from them asking when our next road show is. To cater to the low-income group, we suggested ways of cooking for big families on small budgets. There were also suggestions on how to get children to eat vegetables, and how to coax fussy eaters to eat,” said Wake.

It is not all about compassionate capitalism; ultimately doing good is an effective public relations strategy which enhances the company’s profile. The CSR approach is also about winning customers who have become more discerning and demanding in their expectations of big corporations’ social obligations.

“The Knorr road shows enable us to build a stronger relationship with our customers, and develop brand loyalty. It also makes our team more savvy marketers. The next time they run a contest, they’d not be suggesting a trip to Disneyland as a prize because they’d know it’s not what their customers want,” said Wake.

Hindustan Lever, Unilever’s main operating business in India, has undertaken CSR initiatives that are linked to its products. For instance, its Lifebuoy Swatsthya Chetana is the largest rural health and educational programme in India, while its Fair and Lovely Foundation aims to empower Indian women.

In its broader sense, CSR is not merely about incorporating value-added enriching messages in marketing campaigns, or launching boutique projects. It is also about businesses behaving ethically voluntarily, and contributing to local economic development.

Companies are now increasingly keen to inculcate the CSR culture among their workforce.

Unilever Malaysia started its Touching Hearts programme last year, whereby its staff volunteers to take on community work. They volunteered and contributed to a home for the disadvantaged last year.

This year, Unilever decided to “adopt” children from 30 poor families in Sekolah Kebangsaan Bangsar, which is located near its office.

Unilever staff held a carnival to help the school to raise funds to buy a van.

“For Hari Raya, we presented all the families with new Raya clothes. We will also be taking them to buy school supplies at the end of the year,” said Wake.

Unilever staff also shared their experiences with the schoolchildren to motivate them as UPSR approached.

Nita, who grew up in the area, described how she used to walk to school with her torn shoes wrapped in plastic bags on rainy days. With education, said Nita who is now with Unilever, she secured a job and was able to rise above her hard beginnings.

Employees also hold fundraising activities within the organisation for charities.

“We could just write a cheque, but the Touching Heart programme is about us getting involved,” Wake said. “Employees participate voluntarily, and the feedback has been positive. The programme is more employee-driven than management-driven. When we go visit the homes, our bus is full.”

“It put meaning in our working life,” she said.