How Unilever Foundry Forges Links With Startups

Jeremy Basset, head of Unilever Foundry, explains how the operation is working with innovative startups to keep pace with quickening change in marketing and advertising.

How Unilever Foundry Forges Links With Startups

Multinational consumer goods company Unilever is behind many of the brands we consume every day, from Ben & Jerry’s to Dove, Toni & Guy to Hellmann’s, but the global giant also has a longstanding relationship with startups.

It created venture capital arm Unilever Ventures in 2002, and in 2014 launched the Unilever Foundry, born of the need to take this relationship beyond investment and put startups at the heart of its innovation.

Jeremy Basset is the company’s former global marketing strategy director and is now head of Unilever Foundry. He spoke to recently, and I began by asking him how and why the Foundry came about.

Basset: Unilever is the second biggest advertiser in the world but it is always looking for more efficient and effective ways to engage with people. If you look at the pace of change in the marketing and advertising sector, it is moving at an increasing rate, and startups are driving that. We wanted to address how we could continue to make our operations more efficient and more effective, and continue to keep pace with that change. We know we have a massive opportunity—but also a responsibility—to pioneer the future.

The challenge was how to open our doors to make Unilever accessible to startups, while also leading that transformation. It was clear to us that it isn’t enough to ask our organisation and marketers to experiment and pioneer; you have to create a structure and a framework to make all that happen, hence the Unilever Foundry was born. What is your role?

Basset: I lead the Foundry, and my role is to facilitate the collaboration between Unilever and its brands, and startups. The Foundry team and I are tasked with matchmaking in a way that brings more efficient and more effective ways of working into Unilever, while helping startups to scale up by partnering with large corporates.

I have the best job in the company because I get to work with “billion euro” brands to help build strategies and find innovative solutions to match, as well as working with the startup world, which is incredibly nimble and agile, and amazingly exciting. My challenge is to try to bring those two things together. How do you identify which startups to work with?

Basset: We work to understand what issues our brands are trying to solve, then look at where innovative startups can help to bring about solutions. Over time we have evolved our “pitch, pilot, partner” process to identify the most innovative and effective ideas.

We begin by crafting a brief and putting that on our website, and inviting startups from around the world to apply to pitch their ideas to our leaders. We review anywhere from 50 to 100 startups—sometimes more—per brief. We whittle that down to five or six companies who we bring in and work with, getting them to pitch back to our businesses leaders and decision makers. We then choose one company—or occasionally a combination of companies—to move into a pilot stage, which will typically last between six and 12 months.

One of our key mantras is “think big, start small and act fast,” so we aim to get from pitch to pilot and starting learning very quickly. That can take anywhere from two weeks to 12 months. How does Unilever work with the startups during the pilot phase?

Basset: In most cases startups will work directly with our marketing team and perhaps alongside one of our agencies. They will have access to a Unilever mentor to help guide them through the process and, depending on how we can best help them, we might introduce them to Unilever Ventures for a discussion around raising capital. They might also work with our legal team and our procurement team on setting up and scaling up, so they will interact with a variety of functions. And if the pilot is successful?

Basset: We try to give startups a very quick “yes” or “no” so that they can start to scale up quickly, and we can benefit as quickly as possible from any effectiveness or efficiency benefits that might come from that partnership.

Ideally, with successful pilots, we move them into longer-term partnerships and start to scale them by finding another opportunity; perhaps across more geographies or with other brands or functions within Unilever.

We are also trying to take the industry with us on this journey. The faster we can get our peers to engage with startups, the more investment and resources will flow into this sector, which helps startups to scale up quicker, and helps industries to realise a better way of marketing. How are startups integrated into Unilever if they are successful?

Basset: They remain as separate entities. Sometimes we invest in them via Unilever Ventures, but we don’t generally take a majority stake. We think it is better for startups to remain separate. It gives them flexibility with who they work with and how they work, and we benefit too because they are being sharpened by working with other companies. Ownership isn’t the objective here; for us it’s about access to the world’s best technologies. Success is finding long-term partners who we can scale across the organisation. Can you share some examples of Foundry projects?

Basset: We have been working with a company called Olapic, which has created a new way for us to use visual content for our brands. It’s based on the premise that consumers tend to skip over branded imagery on social media, but will look at imagery posted by their friends. Olapic takes images that include brand references but are generated by ordinary users, and asks for permission from those users to use that content in a branded context. Once they have permission, they A/B test that against other content and find the best-performing images. We can then use those in our news feed.

For example, if someone takes a photo of themselves or a friend using a Dove bar and posts it on social media, Olapic could contact that person for permission to use that image. If tests prove it to be effective, we can use that in our communications. The images we see from Olapic typically outperform the images we receive through more traditional channels. How have you scaled up the use of Olapic’s technology since the pilot?

Basset: We have used Olapic’s technology across other Unilever brands and have had huge success so far, including with our Magnum brand. We have also scaled it across more geographies and invested in Olapic via Unilever Ventures. You have also worked with which provides online market research to companies.

Basset: allows us to bring focus groups into the 21st century by virtually reaching out to people. So, within minutes or hours they can carry out a focus group online, based on a very specific set of parameters that we have set.

The virtual element also allows them to dig deeper, for example plugging emotion recognition technology into a video call so it can much more quantitatively assess responses from people. It is much quicker and cheaper as well as more sustainable, because it negates the need for travel. were San Francisco-based when we met them and they are now in over 20 countries around the world and have been translated into eight different languages. Unilever has benefited from their technology and we have helped them to grow significantly in the process. Has the Foundry’s approach changed since it launched, based on lessons learnt?

Basset: The “pitch, pilot, partner” process works really well, but we have realised that it is not just for marketing tech starts ups. Startsups in every sector are reinventing the world and, because Unilever has such a big sustainability agenda, we would like to connect more with social impact businesses to help transform what we do. Late last year we launched Transform, an initiative linked to Foundry, which helps us to connect our brands with social impact businesses.

We have also realised that no-one has a monopoly on good ideas—not Unilever and not startups—so in March 2015 we created Foundry IDEAS, a platform for innovators, creatives and designers to co-create with Unilever. Through that platform we put sustainability challenges out to the general public worldwide, inviting them to share ideas and comments. We have had very good engagement so far. What lessons have you learnt along the way?

Basset: We have learnt that doing is better than planning. The idea “think big, start small and act fast” is an important mantra for us. In a fast-paced world you can very quickly destroy value by failing to launch at the right time.

Another lesson is to be comfortable with embracing the “F” word—failure—and to see that as part of the journey. It is something Unilever has traditionally spent a lot of time managing out of the organisation, but in what we call a VUCA world—volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous—it is important that we experiment, and part of experimentation is to accept and take risks and therefore accept and take failure and learn from it. Is there ever a cultural conflict when working with startups?

Basset: We are all human so this whole David and Goliath construct isn’t necessarily a helpful analogy because when you talk to entrepreneurs there often isn’t a huge difference in what we are all trying to achieve. I try to encourage startups and corporates to just engage. They will realise there is a very common agenda that pulls us all together and that is much more powerful than any differences we share. But on the other hand, there are of course some very practical differences and we need to do what we can to acknowledge and work around that. How have you addressed those practical differences?

Basset: Speed is one issue. In six months a startup can go from being nothing to hugely successful, or from hugely successful to nothing. If we fail to give a quick yes or no, that can cause huge difficulties for startups. A slow “maybe” is the number one killer. We have found that being honest and up-front and quick with our responses is hugely important in having a successful relationship.

Payment terms are another area. Normal corporate payment terms can often stifle startups, which is not good for either of us, so we have worked with our procurement team to shorten those terms.

Also, from a legal perspective, we try to acknowledge a pilot for what it is; a pilot. It is not meant to be a contract with a massive partner, and therefore the legal side needs to be managed accordingly. We have worked with our legal team to simplify contracts. Such things can really help to get a relationship off to a strong start. How can organisations go about initiating work with startups?

Basset: There are some really easy ways. We started by mentoring startups, holding a two-hour “speed dating” session between several startups and Unilever colleagues, and people loved it. It broke down the barriers between entrepreneurs and our marketing leaders.

Working with third party scouts who have very strong networks in different startup communities has also made it easier for us to find and partner with some very interesting and innovative startups. You don’t have need a big web site or hundreds of people signed up to mentor, or even a significant budget; you can start very quickly and easily. Think big, start small and act fast.

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