David Blecken
May 23, 2014

Unilever Foundry aims for closer relationship with startups

GLOBAL - Unilever has launched an initiative to foster stronger ties with promising startup companies around the world in a move that it hopes will benefit both its marketing practice and the startup companies themselves.

Weed: "We strive to be at the forefront of marketing and media innovation"

According to an official statement, The Unilever Foundry “will provide a single entry point for innovative startups seeking to partner with Unilever” and “enable the company’s global brands to experiment with and pilot new technologies more efficiently, effectively and speedily”.

Startups will benefit from funding and mentoring from Unilever marketers as well as opportunities to work on major global projects. Volunteer mentors will work individually with startups for three-month periods to help build the brand, strategy and products. Startups will also be able to apply for funding through Unilever Ventures, the company’s venture-capital division. At the same time, Individual Unilever brands will post briefs that require technology solutions, to which startups can pitch ideas.

At a press conference in London yesterday, which Campaign Asia-Pacific attended via telephone, Olivier Garel, MD of Unilever Ventures, said the company would consider funding companies operating in strategic product growth areas such as the beauty sector, as well as tech companies and in particular new ways of using mobile technology.

In the statement, Keith Weed (pictured), Unilever’s chief marketing and communications officer, said the move was a scaling-up of the company’s ongoing efforts to be “at the forefront of marketing and media innovation”.

Marc Mathieu, Unilever’s SVP of global marketing, said during the conference that the pace of change in the marketing industry would only continue to accelerate. “We have the opportunity, and necessity, to open up, bring the outside in and connect with the ecosystem of startups,” he said.

He noted that Unilever had already had success in experimenting with startup companies such as BrainJuicer. But he emphasised that for the programme to be beneficial to both sides, Unilever would be looking to work only with startups that were already relatively well established and in the Series A financing stage. He cited sustainability in the home, the development of a smart kitchen and transformation of the in-store experience as examples of projects that Unilever would partner with startups for.

“We’re seeking to embed this as an ongoing way of working,” he said, adding that he saw it as a way of “bringing entrepreneurial spirit into the organisation”.

Asked about the implications for the way that Unilever brands work with established agency partners, Mathieu said the world had changed. “A few years ago, you briefed one agency and created one media plan," he said. "Today the number of plans on any campaign are in double-digits. Clearly with the ecosystem as it is, we see the need for more and more specialised solutions.”

But he added that Unilever would not be looking to replace existing agency partners with startups. Roster agencies will “be able to submit briefs [to startups] as we will”, he explained. He noted that Ogilvy had suggested bringing Upworthy, a viral content website, into the frame in one instance.

“We see it as an organic evolution—a more rich, complex way of doing marketing. Not ‘or’, but ‘and’,” Mathieu said.

Rafe Ring, co-founder of Global Insights Group, which has worked closely with Unilever, called the concept of partnering with startups "an innovative and brave step forward". He said brands that were not open to such measures would eventually be left behind. "It's a smart and necessary move to stay in sync with the way consumers, communications and brands are evolving," he concluded.


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