Handwashing is important in helping prevent the spread of infectious diseases © Getty Images
Handwashing is important in helping prevent the spread of infectious diseases © Getty Images

Case study: Unilever's Foundry innovates with start-ups

In the past five years the consumer goods firm has launched more than 100 pilots with mature start-ups, many of which have become partnerships, solving challenges.

Everyone wants to be ‘more innovative’ – it’s a throw-away catchphrase applied to so many targets – but just how do you go about it? One way is to crowdsource ideas and play around with possible solutions to see what sticks.

Set up in 2014, the Foundry is the platform Unilever uses to do just that. Effectively an ideas engine, the global consumer goods company uses it to engage with innovators and entrepreneurs to test ideas in digital marketing and advertising technology, enterprise technology and e-commerce, products and ingredients, new business model innovation and social impact. 

The brands and functions within the business are continuously adding new briefs to the platform, which then gives start-ups the chance to collaborate with Unilever and its 400+ brands.

“The objective is to build and cultivate strategic partners for the future, with Unilever as a partner of choice,” the company says.

Mature start-ups that are able to scale-up across Unilever’s locations and brands can apply to work with the company by explaining how they can address a particular brief. Projects typically begin as paid pilots, from which their scope can be refined and built upon.

At least 48 of the 100 or so pilots it has collaborated on have become partnerships that have since scaled up, involving products from Marmite and Magnum. One of its success stories is with Next Billion, a for-profit social enterprise that helps companies understand and engage with emerging consumers around the world. 

Limited media and marketing channels in rural Bangladesh meant Unilever’s toothpaste and soap brands, Pepsodent and Lifebuoy, were struggling to grow among consumers. Unilever teams – together with the Foundry platform – engaged Next Billion to create a solution. It used Mobile Movies, pop-up cinemas that brought people together with entertaining gatherings, then also showed educational videos on dental and hand hygiene. 

The programme then selected women from those rural communities to raise the profile of the products. It provided training on the benefits of washing hands and brushing teeth, and gave them samples, some media content and small pocket projectors to market them to potential customers. 

Finding what has changed

“Sustainable delivery and social impact is at the heart of everything we do,” says Zulayed Ali, former brand manager for Unilever Bangladesh. “We’ve always been very proud of our rural activation programmes and while we’ve historically done great, we had been going with the same tried and tested models, but they were simply not resonating with consumers like they used to. They now have mobile, television and they are much more media exposed, they just don’t trust brand people from the city and that’s where Next Billion came in.”

The women went back to their communities and engaged within their own villages and suddenly Unilever found its messages had more authenticity and credibility with the same consumers.Unilever tested the programme in two parts of Bangladesh, and the business clearly saw awareness of Pepsodent and Lifebuoy, as well as hand washing and teeth-brushing habits, significantly increase. 

Foundry successes

Other stories to come out of the Unilever Foundry include:

  • A partnership with Intervino offering personalised jars of Marmite via a Facebook app.
  • Working with Discuss.IO enabled Unilever to get consumer marketing insights from customers around the world digitally in hours and days using process automation, crowdsourcing and webcams. 
  • Olapic helped the company boost interest in Magnum ice creams with more user-generated content. 
  • With Digital Genius, Unilever launched an app that answered the question ‘what’s for dinner tonight?’ The AI-powered chat helped cook better meals using Knorr products.
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