More and more brands are working to find ways to collaborate with tech companies, recognizing the growing imperative to connect with audiences in more meaningful ways beyond ad campaigns, to explore new ways to use data, and, perhaps most crucially, just to generally catch up to the mobile revolution in progress. Unilever has been prominent among the brands devoting time and resources to cultivating these collaborations with tech companies, but has now thrown open the doors to startups everywhere.
The consumer goods giant has announced the creation of The Unilever Foundry, a new platform that unites and expands the company’s existing efforts to work with startups. The Foundry will serve as Unilever’s flagship, global tech collaboration and investment program, providing an accessible mechanism for startups to interact with the world’s second largest advertiser, and gain access to the company's marketing expertise, massive global scale (Unilever products are used by 2 billion people daily), and, potentially, funding.
Keith Weed, Unilever chief marketing and communications officer, says the Foundry initiative is unique for its "pitch to pilot" approach. As part of the three-pronged program, startups can submit ideas to the Foundry site which will host an ongoing series of projects on different themes. Successful applicants will get $50,000 and a chance to create a pilot program with a major Unilever brand. At launch, the projects on the Foundry site revolve around sustainable living, digital retail experiences, smart kitchens, and quantified self. The second main element is mentoring—startups will have access to Unilever marketers over a period of three months. And third, the Foundry is linked to the company’s existing venture capital arm, Unilever Ventures, giving strategically relevant startups in the digital marketing, mobile, content, e-commerce, analytics and data spaces, a chance at funding.
Unilever has been an early adopter when it comes to outreach to and investment in the tech world. In addition to founding Unilever Ventures in 2002, the company has worked over the last several years with accelerators like TechStars and U.K.’s Springboard and Collider. Weed laughs that the company was the first to do the now-cliched "marketer's tour of Silicon Valley" and has established relationships with the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon. "Long may that continue," says Weed, "but we also want to meet the future movers and shakers. We’re committed to this as a way of getting to ideas and innovation but also as a way of bringing more action-oriented thinking and dynamism into the company."
The Unilever Foundry program, created in partnership with R/GA London, formalizes all of the company’s tech efforts and was inspired in particular by an initiative launched last December called Go Global. That program saw Unilever pair seven startups with seven billion-Euro brands, offering $100,000 in funding, mentorship, and a pilot digital marketing project.
For startups in this space, especially those looking to expand into global markets, Unilever’s scale is an obvious attraction, but in the tech world, where sophistication vis-a-vis marketing can be in short supply, access to one of the world’s biggest marketing machines should be a considerable draw—Weed says the mentoring portion of Go Global, originally considered an add-on turned out to be a key benefit.
For Unilever, Weed says the main goal of the program is engaging and adding value for consumers. The CMO has also noted the mobile imperative—he told a marketing publication last year that "mobile is going to have a bigger impact than the Internet had." And of course there’s the opportunity to make bets on future tech winners and create new revenue potential beyond selling soap and ice cream. Unilever’s past investments have included Brandtone, a mobile marketing company focusing on emerging markets—Unilever was an early investor and a major advertiser on the platform—and market research consultancy Brainjuicer (Unilever invested in 2003 and divested its stake in 2010 and 2011, generating, according to the company, "a 17x multiple on its investment"). And the company has just announced that it will invest in content marketing platform, Percolate.
The Foundry, and programs like it, is also about shifting corporate mindset. All marketing entities have been eager to emulate the processes and mentality of startups, making the shift from the over-baked, overwrought, over-tested campaign mentality to a more nimble, utility-minded approach. And Unilever is, by all appearances, reasonably forward-facing as giant companies go—CEO Paul Polman instituted the ambitious Sustainable Living Plan in 2012, promising to double the company’s size while reducing its environmental footprint and meeting various sustainability and social impact goals. He's also done things like eliminating quarterly reports, and the company has been among the most creative marketers for some time. "We spend a lot of time doing planning and perfecting," says Weed. "What startups do is launch and learn. It’s good for us."
Weed also says the project is, finally, just about shaping the future of marketing. "We have a responsibility and opportunity to use our scale and expertise to pioneer the future," he says.