Rafe Ring
May 27, 2014

Innovation Insiders: Marc Mathieu on Unilever's efforts to forge innovation

In his a series that goes inside global companies making innovation central to how they do business, Rafe Ring, co-founder and CMO of Global Insights Group, sat down with Marc Mathieu, senior vice president of marketing at Unilever, in his London BlackFriar offices.

Marc Mathieu
Marc Mathieu

Rafe Ring: How do you view innovation internally from a marketing perspective and how are you bringing that to life in a both broad and a granular way inside Unilever?

Marc Mathieu: Our ambition to do great marketing is to be ahead of the curve and as Keith Weed says to get to the future first and welcome people there, not follow them. Two-and-a-half years ago we created a whole new platform in which we embed all of our marketing and innovations, which we call ‘crafting brands for life’.  This is all about making sure that we give ourselves the chance to excel at marketing the way it is done today but also experiment and explore new ways to engage people with our brands.

Rafe Ring: How do you go about that exploration? Do you have a formal process? Or is it more organic and evolving?

Marc Mathieu: One of the things we did first is to make sure that we were very clear on the basics of what makes great marketing. That’s why we push this refocus on people, not just consumers, because in the end that is one of the headlines of ‘crafting brands for life’—which is to put people first.

Sometimes we tend to think of innovation almost for the sake of it, and I wouldn’t be the first to acknowledge that sometimes innovation is done for market needs, customer needs. But if we really want to matter as brands in the long run, we need to do innovation that matters to people. Innovations that really improve their lives.

The second layer of ‘crafting brands for life’ is about creating brands and innovations that are purposeful. Purposeful for people and purposeful for brands. It’s about building brand love and making sure we are very clear about the reality between the brand as a product that we want people to buy, and the brand as an idea that we want people to buy into.

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So its all about making sure that any innovation, whether its a communication innovation, media innovation, product innovation, is playing around that double idea of what the product is that we want people to buy but also what is the idea we want them to buy into. How can we connect, not just with their skin or their mouth or hair, but also with their heart.

The last layer in ‘crafting brands for life’ is this whole notion of ‘unlocking the magic’. It’s about really looking for how we can touch people’s lives in ways that create magical, innovative brands and brand experiences that constantly bring our brands to life in ways that are surprising. Familiar, yet surprising at the same time. So that it actually delights, or has the ability to delight, people.

Rafe Ring: You are leading a gigantic team of marketers, massive on a global scale. How do you actually embed and encourage a culture of innovation—a shared vision—within your marketing teams?

Marc Mathieu: The first thing important to me is indeed to make sure people have the foundations, the basics. Give them the tools, the systems, to raise the floor, and at the same time give them the ambition to constantly raise the ceiling. So we use that mindset of raising the floor and raising the ceiling, and balancing logic and magic.

It’s about finding ways to innovate, create from the tension between doing marketing as a science while at the same time doing marketing as an art. So from the beginning, we push this idea that innovation requires experimentation. There is a balance. On the one hand, how do we master a scientific approach to innovation to design more best sellers with the innovation process management that is proven and that works? And at the same time how do you leave space for the surprising, the new.

Experimentation involves a lot of different approaches. One is working with startups, working with new platforms. This means expanding your thinking again, which to me can only be done if you are very clear what people you serve and what is the purpose of your brand.  Then you can start to create a new platform like for instance Dove sketches, which to me was an innovation in the way we approached the campaign for the brand and at the same time achieved high levels of reach. Even something like the way Lifebuoy re-connected with its original purpose of saving lives, with a platform to help more kids to reach the age of five.

To me those are the kind of innovations that I feel really great about when it comes to marketing because they are central to unlocking the core of the brand, as opposed to an innovation that is superficial, that is not long lasting, that is just a game - not something new—not something meaningful.

Rafe Ring: You talked about experimentation and the floor and ceiling tension; do you give your people room to fail? Is that encouraged?

Marc Mathieu: I always say to people, are you totally fired up by your brand? And are you willing to be fired for your brand? The first one is easy, being fired up. Yeah of course! But are you ready to be fired? Absolutely more difficult.

There are spaces within Unilever where we are excellent at celebrating failure, for example, at our Ben & Jerry’s headquarters in US they have a ‘flavour graveyard’. That is a beautiful way of recognizing that some flavours last forever and some flavours fail. There is an epitaph on each of them, written as a poem and they include the life of the flavour. One flavour which didn’t even survive summer said 1997-1997. This is the extreme of where we do it best, but the reality is we don’t do it well across the organisation and if I’m honest, we haven’t truly enabled our brands to experiment and fail.

If we want our people to pioneer the future of marketing, then we need to give them room to experiment and enable them to fail responsibly. To encourage greater levels of experimentation and to embed this as an ongoing way of working, we’ve just launched The Unilever Foundry. The Foundry will offer our brands and functions opportunities to experiment and pilot new technologies more efficiently, effectively and frequently.

The Unilever Foundry builds on a lot of work that we’ve already done -and will continue to do- to engage with startups. Over the last few years we’ve worked closely with the eYeka’s or Mofilm’s of this world, we’ve invested in startups through Unilever ventures, and we’ve partnered seven of our brands with startups through ‘GoGlobal’. The Unilever Foundry takes these ‘experiments’ and embeds this as an ongoing way of working.

This kind of experimentation to me is critical. We did a session recently in Australia with eight startups, four categories, and six or eight brands. It was interesting because they were all Australian startups and we organized a kind of dragon’s den with a few of them. What was fascinating for me was the fact that, number one, all those startups were talking marketing to our marketers. And number two, few of our people knew that these startups even existed before we had the sessions with them. So it creates an openness - a kind of the realization that there are startups out there that are actually talking your language, that are working on marketing platforms but that somehow are not part of your everyday consideration set.

So as I see it, there are two fundamental characteristics we need to breed more within our marketers: Curiosity and Courage. Our aim with Unilever Foundry is to inspire and enable both.

Rafe Ring: When you are trying to shift the way marketers approach innovation, experiment with new platforms, and inspire a culture that thrives on curiosity and courage, are there specific targets you set? How do you measure your own KPI’s in terms of embedding this approach into your teams? How do you measure yourself, essentially.

Marc Mathieu: It’s a good question. When it comes to marketing and media innovation we really try and make it an internal mindset and emulation to try to be first, leveraging our scale being number two advertiser in the world to actually be first in experimenting with new spaces such as media innovation. For example we were the first one to partner with Apple to do iAds. That in itself gives us the ability to not just be the first, but to learn and adapt quickly. So for me, aside from breeding curiosity and courage, the speed we have in adopting and adapting to new innovations is important. A good example are the innovations with BrandTone in new campaigns leveraging SMS messaging and smartphones. Another is the innovation that we did with Hellman’s with the recipe receipts. That was a way adding innovation and surprise to the shopper’s experience. This was an in- store innovation, where people buy ingredients, and when they do they get a recipe which involves say, almonds or some of the other things they purchased.  It is fascinating to see how people get surprised—“Oh how does the machine know that’s what I bought?” But of course it is just using technology one-on-one in today’s world, using it in a way that has never been done before. So it is more an emulation and an aspiration than necessarily a KPI.

Rafe Ring: You’re familiar with the ‘law of fibre’ that says broadband is doubling in capacity globally every 9 months. That’s part of the reason for the exponential global growth of smartphone usage. How are you are planning to capitalise on this to increase consumer engagement on mobile devices?

Marc Mathieu: Well, mobility as a way of life is an area we are really pushing to go next in terms of innovations that we create with communication. We can talk about all the app-based innovations we have done with the likes of Axe, Flora, Weil in India, Dirt is Good in South Africa, and others, and how we are using new platforms. But to me the next iteration of marketing is to move from using the mobile as an app based or solution based device, and instead use the mobile to tap into existing behaviours, as opposed to trying to change people’s behaviours. To me when we talk about mobile it is more about the interconnectivity of everything, that it is wearable, and it is all about engaging people’s mobility as a way of life, not just mobile as a device.

Rafe Ring: From a strategic point of view, what’s the biggest marketing challenge facing Unilever over the next twelve months.

Marc Mathieu: To me the biggest challenge remains the fact that, as simple as it may sound, we are living through technology and through a fundamental democratization of marketing. There is going to be an even further empowerment of people through technology.  So it is not just mobility, it is also about empowerment. And the challenge is this—how do we let go? How we let go of marketing? Because when we are trying to market our products, our brands, we take it from a bias, which is that we are trying to impose on people what we want them to know and what we want them to do. And while we are trying to market our brands the reality is that more and more people are marketing our brands themselves; they are doing a lot of things with our brands themselves.

There is an interesting statistic that was discussed at the WFA Conference recently in Sydney which is the fact that 80 per cent of marketers think they connect well with their consumers yet only 8 per cent of consumers think brands connect with them. The reality is there is a huge disconnect.

So in order for people to really trust our brands we need to first of all to be much more purposeful and principled about the way we do our marketing. But also we need to let them take part more and more and recognize that in the end, people are in charge, people are in power.

You see examples everyday online. Like the person who, say, likes to take his motorbike, his Honda or his Harley motorbike, whatever the brand, and go out on the weekend cruising. Then midway through the cruise he stops and either tweets about it, or shares it on Facebook—with pictures. This is marketing, but it is marketing on his terms as opposed to marketing on the brand or the corporation’s terms.

That is one of the biggest challenges. We really need to let go and recognize that this democratization of marketing is a trend that is here to stay.  I said it recently in Sydney, we have no idea what marketing in five, ten years will be like. But the good news is that there is so much access, so many new platforms, new tools, etcetera, so the biggest risk is to think that we have the formula, because we don’t. We must constantly be tapping between what are the fundamentals but also what is the new.

Another of the big challenges we need to acknowledge, and this is difficult because as marketers, as business people, we tend to think if you have a problem to solve, that you need to solve it with your small team and your internal resources. But that is thinking small. Marketers live in a world in which the mindset is “I have a new problem to solve”. The first question that I need to ask myself is “who else is working on this?” Who is working on the same problem and is already on the way of trying to crack it somewhere in the world? And so having a mindset of openness and collaboration as opposed to a closed and siloed approach to resolving the problems that come my way, that is the way to think.

To me it is not just about open innovation, it is more about the mindset by which people approach anything. This is how you see the new generation of marketers behaving, understanding the value of going outside the traditional approach and tapping into networks.

Rafe Ring: What advice would you give to other marketers in other companies who are challenged and trying to come to terms with not only the democratization of media and the democratization of creativity, but also trying to raise the bar, or as you say, raise the floor for their teams? What advice could you give them?

Marc Mathieu: To me its about creating this balance between logic and magic, and the balance between creating the systematic conditions to facilitate and at the same time letting go and creating the permission to experiment and fail.  It’s about finding that balance so that you make sure that you are aware that people are capable and that they have the fundamental skills and practices but at the same time not locking them in.

That’s why I think it is more and more important, going back to this discussion about curiosity, that every marketer is invited to basically discover new ways of bringing the outside in, from perspectives that are completely outside of our world. Whether it is bringing innovation through the lens of a DJ or through the lens of an artist.

We recently brought our team to an immersive theatre experience just because there is probably nothing that embodies better the way consumers are now experiencing our brands on the web. That immersive theatre experience you have is your own personal experience. Everybody is having a different experience. Of course it has been engineered a little bit like the web to be multifaceted but everybody chooses when and where to click or look or listen. I think bringing and developing that sense of curiosity and openness to the outside world is one of the things which is critical to succeed in marketing today.

It is also about making sure that you think about your brands, not as a product, or a moment in time, but as an experience that starts very early and that can continue forever. So the idea of the brand, the experience, is not the product that you buy or you consume but it’s everything that happens from the beginning to the end of what involved that brand choice, to create the brand memory.

Rafe Ring: You’re talking about brand memories that are created, and continue to touch people all along life’s spectrum of experiences.

Marc Mathieu: Exactly. But that’s for another, longer conversation, next time.

If you’re an ‘Innovation Insider’ with a story, send a note to [email protected]


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