Opinion

How leading innovation at Unilever shaped my business journey

8 min read

30 May 2019

When people think of catastrophic business fails, they never mention quiet deaths. They seldom mention the damp fizzles and soft launches that didn’t pick up the necessary traction. Here are the lessons I learned at Unilever.

I worked at Unilever for 14 years and ended up launching and leading its startup accelerator: Unilever Foundry. And it wasn’t perfect. We had our fair share of hiccups, burps, trapped wind and so on. Nobody has a 100% success rate. But instead of dubbing them ‘failures’, we looked at it from a different perspective.

We called them ‘learnings’

Maybe that sounds naive, annoyingly optimistic – doesn’t matter to me. Bill Gates said ‘success is a lousy teacher’, and he’s done all right.

Being glass-half-full about it equipped me with the knowledge and drive to do something other than dwell on what we could’ve done – I’ve since launched an innovation consultancy, CO:CUBED; and I’m also the UK chair of Five by Five’s Launch Marketing Council, where I’ve imparted my, er, ‘learnings’ alongside other business leaders and published whitepapers to help develop best practice.

Basically, there’s an awful lot you can do to stop your business messing up a launch. Here are three key insights I took away from Unilever:

If it’s easy to sell to the board, try selling it on the street

One of the first businesses I launched was a health and wellness platform. It was 2009 when platform-thinking was in its infancy. The gist was: people would take a short diagnostic test, which would provide insights into their nutrition, fitness, sleep, and mood.

They’d then receive personalised recommendations for products and services that would build on their strengths to correct their weaknesses. The system employed complex algorithms, relied on AI (before we knew it was AI!) and utilised nudge theory, before it was widely adopted.

You could say this was the birthplace of modern buzzwords, and we had reams of great slides to support the ideas. Our board loved it, as did internal stakeholders. The platform was launched and, within weeks, it was shut down.

We’d dropped 75% of our budget on forging the idea and creating great slideware to engage our board, so the remaining budget went towards the actual launch.

You learn things when the results aren’t great

When results came in (and they weren’t great), we didn’t have the resources to iterate and develop the idea further. We’d been distracted chasing the support of our senior leaders, and neglected to sense-check the idea with people who ultimately wrote our pay-cheque: our customers.

No matter what kind of business you are, whether you’ve just come to market or you’re looking to scale up, it’s essential that you test, test and test some more.

Test in the market, test with adwords, test with clickthroughs, test continually. Nothing is ever fully optimised.

An agile approach that sets expectations for a sub-optimal launch and gives permission for in-market iteration is, in today’s world, the only launch that will ultimately scale.

Disruption can be dangerous

Another initiative we implemented at Unilever was a network of health ambassadors across rural Asia – the plan was to turn salespeople into health advisors.

The idea was that if we could teach people about basic health and hygiene, that it would create sufficient ‘pull’ for our products and we’d no longer need to ‘sell’ them – the result would be higher growth and healthier villages.

It was a disruptive idea. It went against the grain in that particular market. However, a lack of internal alignment between stakeholders signalled disruption within the initiative itself.

Different people were operating to different P&Ls, disparate briefs. It wasn’t as focused as it should have been. Everyone from senior leaders to on-the-ground operators have to be on board for a disruptive idea – or any idea, come to think of it – to succeed.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew, drink or slurp

When presented with a great idea, you can be led astray. You fall in love – heart takes over the head and want replaces wallet.

At Unilever, I oversaw the launch of a facial cleaning device that delivered superior efficacy, thanks to the flashy new tech it boasted.

The opportunities of said tech seemed endless, and as a result, the team and I lost sight of the product’s long-term goals and USP: to clean your skin. It became a muddle of messaging and ambition, and now I realise where I put my foot wrong.

When operating within the framework of a large enterprise, my advice is always the same: aim to be entrepreneurial, rather than an entrepreneur.

It’s not your job to deliver the meaning of life

You’re there to put a product to market and, over time, test, look for genuine partnerships and scale that product properly. You can think big, but what’s more important is that you start small and move fast.

It was this experience that gave me a newfound appreciation for the magic of entrepreneurship.

For every idea we attempted to launch internally, you could see literally dozens of forward-thinking founders working on the same ideas externally, and more often than not they were two or three years ahead of us.

This insight helped me realise that our role as large corporates is not to invent the future, but to scale it.

People may laugh at your slip-ups, but they will make you stronger

From there I launched the Foundry, Unilever’s platform to partner with startups.

And today, via CO:CUBED, we work with Fortune 200 companies to help them cultivate partnerships with innovative startups.

I still don’t get everything right. Nobody does. But launching a new product or business is so risky, and you can just end up hemorrhaging money if you’re not careful.

There still doesn’t seem to be a full understanding of launch marketing, which is why I joined Five by Five’s Launch Marketing Council.

Beyond other members laughing at me for various startup slip-ups over the years, it’s a group of experts who come together, impart their knowledge and help lay the foundations for launch marketing as a genuine discipline for all to benefit from.

You’ll mess up, you’ll lose face, you’ll probably get a passive-aggressive email from time to time. But testing, internal alignment, and gradual scaling are all integral for successful launch marketing.