Unilever plots fresh innovation push

18 November 2009

LONDON: Unilever, the world's second-largest consumer goods company, is heightening its focus on innovation, as it seeks to strengthen its position both during and after the economic downturn.

The Anglo-Dutch giant is hoping to introduce the first new products that have formed part of its recent development drive, operating under the title of Genesis, in 2010.

According to Genevieve Berger, the company's chief innovation officer, it will then unveil a number of "big innovations" over the course of the next two years.

Since taking up her position in June 2009, Berger has consolidated Unilever's R&D operations into six main global centres, which are stationed in China, India, the Netherlands, the UK and US.

"There is, with my appointment, more discussion at the top table around big innovations and big opportunities," she said.

"It's quick. 2010 is already tomorrow. There's a whole set of launches and innovations starting in 2010. Genesis as such would partly start in 2010, and will mainly be in 2011."

More specifically, Berger argued the aim was to make goods with a similar impact as the whitening dye, which removes yellow stains, that has been adapted for use in both Radiant detergent and Signal White Now toothpaste over the last three years.

"We'll start with personal care and have a clear road map of applications in other categories," she added.

The owner of Knorr, Hellmann's and Dove currently has 17 different programmes running under the auspice of the Genesis project, with the hope of delivering "big wins" going forward.

It is also implementing a number of "renovations" across its existing portfolio, such as with the launch of Magnum Temptation, which has helped increase brand sales over the last six months.

The London-based firm has 6,000 employees operating in the fields of R&D and innovation, and its ceo, Paul Polman, recently stated that €1 billion ($1.5bn; £886m) has been allocated to this area.

Polman took over from Patrick Cescau in September last year, and has delivered impressive results thus far, thanks to initiatives such as 30-day turnaround plans for under-performing products.

Having held senior positions at both Procter & Gamble and Nestlé, Polman has also argued that innovation was "always going to be the main driver" of Unilever's future performance.

Among the main successes during his time as an executive at Procter & Gamble was the Swiffer, a new type of duster, which generated $100 million of sales in its first six months on store shelves.

"Successful innovation was the obvious missing ingredient in Unilever's turnaround during the Patrick Cescau years," said Martin Deboo, an analyst at Investec.

"Chapter 1 in the Polman story is all about better execution and a more performance-orientated culture. Innovation is Chapter 2. Polman was at P&G when it rewrote the book on innovation during the first years under Alan Lafley," he added.

Data sourced from Bloomberg; additional content by Warc staff