Q&A: Unilever and its use of disruptive tech start-ups

- Technology - Mar 24, 2017

Unilever is home to some of the world’s most powerful brands. It is unlikely that your weekly shop doesn’t contain one of its hundreds of household products, but such a leading market position does not maintain itself without tireless behind-the-scenes improvement programmes.

Investing in smaller companies is one such way that Unilever remains at the cutting edge of manufacturing. Recognising the limitations of immense size versus the ability to adapt quickly to technological change, Unilever Foundry touts the best startup talent around.

We asked Aline Santos, Unilever’s EVP Global Marketing, about the importance of startup collaboration.

How important is collaboration with startups to Unilever?

We all know that the explosion of new marketing technology and game-changing consumer trends has had a profound impact on our industry and how we take products to market. Our commitment to sourcing and integrating the most cutting-edge technology is fundamental to securing our future success.

It’s no secret that startups are leading the way in innovation, so by collaborating with these new visionaries, we can pioneer the future together.

As an established organisation, it’s important that Unilever cultivates an ecosystem of people and brands who challenge our way of working and force us to move with the pace of change. Startups help us do this by bringing an entrepreneurial mindset to the business. They enable our brands to look at new ways to develop everything from cutting edge technology to advanced data analysis.

What are some of the benefits to Unilever of working with companies smaller than itself?

Unilever is always looking for more efficient and effective ways to engage with people. We see collaboration with startups as another way we can develop truly effective products and campaigns that will benefit consumers and brands.

We recently looked back at our first 100 pilots with startups to learn from our experience. Over two thirds of our brands saw an increase in revenue and three quarters saw above average campaign engagement. 80 percent of the pilots reduced the time from pitch to execution and 60 percent have changed their approach to marketing briefs since working with Unilever Foundry.

For startups, over 40 percent of our pilots resulted in a longer-term partnership and 45 percent of these then rolled out into multiple markets. So, while there are plenty of big brands who realise the possibilities, innovation and creativity that arises from working with startups – we also know our focus on scaling up makes us different.

What does Unilever look for in a new tech partner?

We look for partners that can provide solutions for both Unilever brands and its consumers. When it comes to innovation, our brands are prepared to take a leap of faith but at the end of the day the underlying tech has to be robust. We would always look for startups that have started their own pilots early so that when it comes to piloting with larger brands like Unilever there is a product that’s ready to scale up.

Tell me about Unilever Foundry. What is the aim of the programme and how does it work?

Unilever Foundry is the entry point for innovators to work with Unilever’s 400+ brands. We have a unique focus by taking established startups on the route to scale up using a Pitch-Pilot-Partner approach to dramatically cut the time it takes to get a new initiative to market.

The aim is for both startups and Unilever to benefit from working together. While we benefit from the agility startups bring, we bring our scale to startups that are ready for the next big stage of growth.

Is sustainability and sustainable growth the key motivator for Unilever?

The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan is a huge priority for Unilever, it’s at the heart of everything we do. For the second year in a row, we have evidence that the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan is driving growth for the business.

In 2015, Unilever Sustainable Living Brands (purpose driven brands) grew even faster than they did in 2014, and grew 30 percent faster than the rest of the business. This is a key area of brand innovation for us, where we are using our capabilities to encourage consumers to adopt more sustainable behaviours and ultimately promote cultural transformation. 

How do events like Unilever Foundry 50 at unbound London help you to find the talent and innovation Unilever needs?

Initiatives such as unbound London creates a framework for bringing new technology into the business and exposing our teams to the latest innovation in the market. This year we’re looking for the startups that will be powering our future and paving the way for consumers and brands.

Can you detail a recent success story?

One of Unilever Foundry’s existing partnerships is with Next Billion, a Singapore-based startup enabling companies to engage hard-to-reach consumers in emerging markets.

This year, Unilever Foundry joined forces with Next Billion to launch Mobile Movies in Bangladesh. Mobile Movies is an initiative that is driven by networks of local agents who organise free film screenings for communities in rural areas.

Through Mobile Movies, we will be able to empower informed attitudes to hygiene, establish a stable supply chain to meet the needs of rural communities in Bangladesh and create jobs for the agents.

Initial field activities commenced from January this year and to date, 
15 female entrepreneurs have been engaged as agents and over 700 presentations have been delivered. The surveys conducted at the sessions show a promising increase in the level of awareness of general hygiene practices.

Over the 12-week trial, more than 30,000 locals were engaged and close to 15,000 samples of Unilever’s Lifebuoy and Pepsodent were distributed.

In rural areas where advertising has limited scope and access to education is a challenge, this partnership is an exemplary example of a disruptive innovation that takes us a step closer toward our ambition of making sustainable living commonplace.

What advice do you have for technology startups looking to scale up and move to the next level?

Brands will always want to see evidence proving your product works and not just technically. They’ll want to see the numbers and real world stats from pilots and focus groups, user engagement, sales uplift or brand impressions – so start collecting now.

And be ready to collaborate. Be open to advice and criticism but without losing the integrity of your business. Remember, you’re working together towards a solution that neither party could achieve on their own. Collaboration isn’t always easy, but it’s worth it. 

Read the March 2017 issue of Business Review Europe magazine. 

Follow @BizReviewEurope

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