Unilever: Digital is democratising innovation

Cannes Lions: Unilever’s SVP of global marketing Aline Santos believes the brand’s work with startups is pivotal to leading change – whether in retail or embracing sustainability – and that there is as much Unilever can learn from startups as they can learn from it.

Speaking to Marketing Week at Cannes, Santos explained: “At Unilever my team on Foundry is officially very small but unofficially I have the world! We have thousands of startups that want to work with us. Today’s world is very dependent on innovation but that does not only come from big companies, it comes from everywhere. Digital is democratising innovation.”

Santos believes startups can help Unilever address a number of the challenges facing the industry. “There are three phenomenon happening today that are important. One is ad blocking, another one is search and the third is the consumer journey. That journey is completely different now to when I started in the company. Then it was very linear and about awareness, interest. Now there are a million touchpoints. Building equity today is a huge challenge. If you have the recipe, please tell me!”

Read more: Jeremy Basset, director of the Unilever Foundry, on working with startups

Unilever is once again using Cannes to reveal the 50 startups it will be working with as part of Foundry this year. While the focus for those startups in 2015 was on marketing technology, this year it involves brands from a range of different fields including startups looking at the future of retail or working on social impact.

This’s year intake includes companies such as Gander, which is using algorithms to minimise food waste, and Klear. The latter has helped one of Unilever’s brand identify 2.5 million influencers to granular detail to ensure it is serving the right content to the right people.

“It is fundamental for us to create the right content and to distribute the right content with the right influencers. I cannot image today’s world without working with startups,” she said.

So far 48 of the 100 startups the Foundry has worked with are being scaled up with some, such as Olapic, working with Unilever in up to 30 of its markets. Yet Santos says there are advantages beyond just the direct work. Mentoring is also increasingly important, with 200 marketers within Unilever now working with startups to help build their brands.

“At the same time they are teaching us how to think like a startup, behave like a startup, how to be fearless and take risks and to embrace speed in a startup way. That has been so energising,” she said.

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