Gabey Goh
Nov 23, 2015

Unilever at MIS: Brands must accept failure if they seek to innovate

SINGAPORE – Brands need to make room for failure if they want to spur innovation and embrace an entrepreneurial approach to solving problems.

From left: Chua, Puri and Rangachari
From left: Chua, Puri and Rangachari

That was one of the headline messages imparted by senior marketing director at Unilever Aseem Puri at Campaign Asia-Pacific's Marketing Innovation Summit held in Singapore last week.

Puri said the first thing the FMCG giant strived to do is fail cheaply and make room for experimentation, in its own quest to become more innovative.

“What we’ve done is across all product categories, about 5 per cent of the budget into experimentation fund,” he added. “This is for bold ideas that are not expected to go through the rigorous research processes that we usually do. If the idea broadly makes sense it is reviewed by a panel of made up of experienced FMCG marketers and angel investors and venture capitalists that do this every day.”

Puri said that last year, the experimentation fund received 37 submissions, out of which five submissions were approved and granted US$500,000 each, totalling US$2.5 million.

Based on the results of the initial pilot, one of the projects is now being expanded into a US$300 million endeavour.

The second challenge is how to tackle the issue of scaling fast, when one of these experimental projects does prove to be successful.

“How do you scale from one market to a hundred within months? And how do you create a team that can make it happen? So we have some experiments taking place in that area around how we can do it better,” he added.

The company has also embraced the concept of “disrupt or be disrupted”, as the FMCG industry, like every other industry is “ripe for disruption”, and has been running an initiative called Unilever Foundry.

“It’s an initiative that recognises that there are lots of disruptive ideas that are taking place within the ecosystem and our company for various reasons can’t do, either we don’t have the expertise, resources or money,” said Puri. “So this is an online platform where startups can come and partner with us.”

He added that the platform already 100 startups signed up with more being evaluated, and forms part of the company’s overall strategy to create a model for disruption.

“Change never begins at the centre, you need to allow for opportunities for it to happen driven by passionate people and watch it like a hawk,” Puri said. “Entrepreneurs don’t need permission, if they have an idea, they just do it and one of the things we’re trying to do is celebrate these kinds of personalities that we have within the organisation.”

Courtesy of, here’s a video of Unilever’s Puri breaking down the key takeaways of the panel discussion.

Innovation needs mind set shift and top-down commitment

Grace Chua, co-founder of educational gaming startup Intellipath Games said that “fail fast” is a concept that isn’t even discussed in the corporate realm.

“It’s more of ‘never fail’ as the company is under pressure due to profit commitments,” added the former VP, strategy & marketing Asia Pacific, Johnson & Johnson. “It’s about earning versus learning.”

Basker Rangachari, chief transformation officer & global head, advisory services at ZAFIN Labs said that most corporations fail at spurring innovation because there is a lack of entrepreneurial thinking at the senior level.

The former global head of brand and retail marketing at Standard Chartered added that the first principle of entrepreneurship is that one must be “hungry, very hungry.”

“The problem is at board level the aim is to try not to get disrupted,” he added. “Senior level tends to think of their own jobs, and embrace safety margins for decision making.”

Rangachari said that companies must question whether they are hungry enough and push for ownership, accountability and glory to come together when it comes to taking on riskier deeds.

“This takes guts, but someone in that boardroom must step up and say ‘I’ll do it but if I do I want the decision rights and if I do well, give me the glory’,” he said. “This is a startup principle and will push others in the room to move as well.”

Chua added that the biggest change driver is top management willing to take the risk. “It just takes one brave soul to stick their head out.”

Courtesy of, here’s a video of Grace Chua on believing in big ideas and making them work.

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