The Festival of Marketing kicked off this morning with a talk by Keith Weed, the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Unilever.

Now we all know Unilever as one of the biggest companies in the world - but what about the world's biggest digital startup?

Not quite.

But an attention-grabbing headline is no bad thing, and Keith's talk focused on how Unilever's business model has adapted in an ever-changing world, inspired by the rise of the disruptive digital startup.

Here’s a summary...

The changing landscape

Keith began by reminding us how the consumer journey has changed beyond recognition.

And of course, you don’t have to be in advertising to have noticed this fact.

With smartphone use taking over desktop for the first time this year, it’s not just what people are watching, but how people are watching it.

Instead of seeing a TV ad on Thursday night and buying a product on a Saturday morning, the path to purchase is much more complex. 

Sharing, video, trust, sustainability, mobile - all these things are increasing important to millennials.

And with millennials predicted to make up 75% of the workforce by 2025, understanding how to engage this core demographic is vital to understanding the workforce, not just Unilever consumers.

So, how can a brand engage consumers at the right place and right time?

How can Unilever compete?

In order to keep pace with young and innovative brands, Keith highlighted three key parts of Unilever’s strategy.

1. A differentiated strategy

While any strategy is important to business, a digital strategy is fundamental in today’s changing landscape. 

When Keith first became CEO of Unilever, he undertook an exercise on trends within the business, discovering the four big drivers that would shape the business in future. 

Firstly, he cites the digital revolution, with companies like Twitter being the driving force behind this change. 

Next is how people are living differently, moving out of the countryside into towns and cities, as well as people and business moving south and east across the globe.

Lastly, and probably most importantly for Unilever, is the environment under stress.

In determining these four factors, the brand decided to move forward with social and environmental sustainability as its core motivation

Keith cited “building brands with purpose and which matter to people” as one of Unilever’s key engagement strategies. 

And a portfolio including the likes of T2 and Dollar Shave Club also shows how Unilever is adapting to a distinct digital startup mentality.

2. Being bold and experimentation

Alongside Unilever’s differentiated strategy is a big focus on experimentation.

Firstly, through Unilever Ventures - investing in the kind of companies that can better help the brand to understand the digital world.

Keith cited Mirriad as a brand that is particularly impressive in its simple yet brilliantly innovative use of technology.

Essentially, it inserts product placement into syndicated television during post-production, allowing brands to become visible.

Further to this type of investment, the Unilever Foundry is another way the startup ethos has been purposely brought into the company, through a culture of 'experiment, fail, learn, repeat'.

With a 50% success rate in working alongside startups, it is a division that continues to push boundaries with success stories such as the ability to personalise Marmite bottles or work with Olapic to capture user-generated imagery.

By working with external companies, Unilever has ultimately changed the way it operates internally.

Using mentors and advisors to inspire learning – and even implementing reverse mentoring from startups – it has created a culture built on innovation through collaboration, and one that embraces disruption. 

3. Tooling up

Lastly, Keith talked about how skills and capability building is at the core of Unilever’s strategy.

You’d never see a sports team sitting around eating crisps before a game, would you?

So why do marketers think so differently about training?

Keith hammered home the fact that businesses need to accept that we need to take a different approach to skills and capabilities in this ever changing world. 

On one hand, we have the digital natives – those who have grown up with technology.

But on the other we have the ‘lost generation’ - the people in their late thirties early forties who might lack knowledge, but do not seek help to further it. 

As a result, Unilever invests in training across the board, with an increased budget for mandatory training.

Keith talked about this mandatory training as 'being cruel to be kind' because if we don't learn as marketers, there's another generation coming through that knows a lot in this area.

Living the space

Keith finished by emphasising the importance of ‘living the space’.

In other words – doing all the things that consumers do in order to gain inspiration and insight. 

Instead of sitting back and watching changes happen, this means being at the forefront when they do.

So, while Unilever might not actually be the biggest digital startup in the world, we can see why it might inspire the smallest.

Nikki Gilliland

Published 5 October, 2016 by Nikki Gilliland @ Econsultancy

Nikki is a Writer at Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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