Jeremy Basset
Sep 1, 2015

The business case for brands working with startups

Jeremy Basset, global marketing strategy director for Unilever, explains the returns the FMCG giant gains from its startup outreach programme, Foundry.

Jeremy Basset
Jeremy Basset

Startups are disrupting industries, redefining how we engage with each other and re-writing the marketing rulebook. The last 12 months alone have seen twice the number of 'unicorns' born than in the previous nine years, and corporate innovation teams are working around the clock to define the Uber of their company.

When it comes to marketing technologies, the changes facing our industry are just as interesting and transformative. Through the Unilever Foundry, we’re launching pilots with a new startup every five days (on average), with about half of those pilots progressing into longer-term strategic partnerships.


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While startup valuations continue to break new heights and marketers enjoy their shiny new toys, we have to ask ourselves: is this sustainable?

As marketers, there are two questions we should ask to ensure that collaborating with startups is as impactful as it is inspiring. Firstly, are they bringing technology that enables us to engage more effectively the people we serve? And secondly, are they bringing technology that enables more efficient engagement?

Of course there are other elements to consider, such as the impact on brand equity, the level of differentiation versus peers, the buzzworthy opportunity of being first to market or the first to scale a new idea. It doesn’t always have to be about dramatically changing the way we work. Often it’s about empowering people to do what they do, just doing it better.

At the end the day, the longevity of this partnership comes down to two parameters: efficiency and effectiveness. Simply put, if startups deliver against these simple criteria then they have a role to play in the future of our marketing strategy. Anything less and they’re as valuable as a handbrake on a canoe.

When we launched the Unilever Foundry in 2014, we talked about our desire to partner with the pioneers to find new, more efficient and more effective ways to engage with the people we serve. And that strategy is being validated.

Many of the companies we are working with are bringing technology that slashes the cost of traditional operating methods or significantly improves the effectiveness of interactions, typically by 50 to 55 per cent.

For example, Discuss.IO is reinventing the focus group and helping us to connect with people around the world in a way that halves the cost and time versus traditional methods. Once our CMI organisation began working with Discuss.IO nine months ago, the startup has grown from USA only to 28 countries and 16 languages.

When our Knorr brand wanted to answer the question of ‘What’s for dinner tonight’ via basic feature phones, they worked with London-based artificial intelligence startup Digital Genius. ‘Chef Wendy’ was born: An automated, real-time SMS-based tool that engages users in personalised interactions, suggesting recipes based on the ingredients they have on hand and their meal preferences. The resulting engagement levels were three to four times higher than standard brand-led text messaging.

These are just two of many examples. After launching pilots with over 70 startups around the world, we are seeing these metrics repeated, time and time again.

So, the model works. In today’s world, where financial and environmental resources have never been so constrained, we’re forced to explore new, more efficient and effective solutions. When we focus on the fundamentals of efficiency and efficacy without limiting creativity, increasingly we’re finding that startups are delivering. 

Our role as large corporates is to help start-ups to scale-up. The more we invest, mentor, recognise and reward the organisations who are pioneering the industry the faster we’ll be able to bring the future forward. And that’s good for everyone.

Of course, it’s not always smooth sailing, and in any transformation there are blockages, casualties and mistakes. But in an agile world, the faster we fail, the faster we learn, the faster we evolve. There is no other way.

The essence that allows startups to prosper in today’s landscape is the same core ingredient that will allow our organisations to not only survive, but thrive in the years ahead. Startups have nothing to lose and everything to gain. They’re not weighed down by existing infrastructure, or tied to a capital model. Legacy is something to build, not something to be defined by, and history is long overdue a re-write.

As we seek out Asia’s next big startup at Campaign’s upcoming Marketing Innovation Summit (19 November in Singapore), we’re looking for startups that are not only differentiated, innovative and challenging the status quo, but we’re especially looking for technologies that bring unprecedented efficiency and effectiveness to what we do.

Only then will we have a strong business case to not only pilot your technology but to also transform and disrupt our industry.


This article is part of the Campaign Innovate series, a collection of articles that examine the way innovation, startups and technology are affecting the advertising and marketing industry.

Campaign Asia-Pacific has also launched the Campaign Innovate competition, an event that aims to provide a platform for Asia-Pacific's startups to pitch to some of the world's biggest brands. The winner will be announced a the Marketing Innovation Summit.


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