Unilever launches global start-up platform to help it find the next Facebook

Unilever is offering to mentor and invest in digital marketing start-ups and will give them access to brands in return for early access to new technology and trends. 

The Unilever Foundry will offer start-ups mentorship, investment and access to Unilever’s brands.

The “Unilever Foundry” programme launches today (22 May) and is open to marketing start-ups working across areas including digital, content, social and mobile. Any of Unilever’s brands will be able to post pitches to the programme that start-ups can apply to, while mentors will be available as Unilever looks to offers it marketing expertise to the start-up community.

Speaking to Marketing Week, Unilever’s senior vice president of global marketing, Marc Mathieu, says the Foundry is part of attempts to scale up Unilever’s relationships with start-ups following its Go Global incubator initiative, which will continue to run as a part of the Foundry. He says while that is a “great platform” its use is limited and heavily curated centrally by the marketing team, with Unilever wanting to give its own brands more opportunity in how and which start-ups they work with.

The programme is aimed at giving Unilever early access to marketing developments and innovations that might change the future of marketing, as Facebook and Google have done over the past 10 years. Mathieu admits it took Unilever “a little bit of time” to realise the impact these new technologies would have 10 years ago but it now wants to make sure it is ahead of the curve.

The Foundry, created with R/GA London, offers three main opportunities to start-ups. The first will see brands put out pitches that start-ups will be able to apply to and, if chosen, deploy their technology with Unilever.

Unilever is looking for start-ups that already have a product and have raised some funding that it can help to build up. The first briefs include one around sustainable living solutions, another on creating retail shopping experiences and a further on the future of market research.

The second stage is a mentorship programme where Unilever marketers will work with start-ups to help them in areas such as marketing, branding and product definition. So far 80 Unilever marketers have signed up to offer their help, with the schemes running for 3 months and Unilever expecting them to offer the equivalent of a day over that time, or an hour every 3 weeks.

Finally is the opportunity for investment. Mathieu says initially start-ups that pitch successfully will be given $50,000 but Unilever will not take an equity stake. However, if after the project Unilever wants to work further with the start-up there is an opportunity to apply for funding through its Unilever Ventures venture capital arm.

Unilever has already invested in a number of marketing start-ups including Brain Juicer, Yummly and Brandtone, as well as partnering with Upworthy. Through Go Global it is also working with Songza, with Mathieu saying a recent campaign for Hellmann’s that saw the brand create playlists on the music site had “very positive results”, including better than average likeability and favourability, although he wouldn’t be drawn on figures.