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Unilever's test-and-learn ethos

News, 25 April 2017

NEW YORK: Marketers may have to double their failure rate in order to consistently achieve meaningful innovation in an increasingly complex marketplace, a leading executive from Unilever has argued.

Kristy Vance, Unilever's Global Director/Media Insights, discussed this subject during a session at the Advertising Research Foundation's (ARF) 2017 Annual Conference.

More specifically, she explained that the owner of brands including Dove beauty products, Ben & Jerry's ice cream and Hellmann's mayonnaise has actively embraced the risk of failure.

"What we like to think of at Unilever is that, in order to be most successful, you actually have to double your failure rate," said Vance. (For more details, including further innovation tips, read WARC's exclusive report: How Unilever builds its entrepreneurial engine.)

As an enterprise operating in various product categories and many countries, Unilever can call on a wide variety of skillsets to drive innovation.

Elaborating on this theme, Vance reported that its attempts at entrepreneurship are supported by "this idea of get out there. Explore. Be inspired. Don't be afraid to try new things."

The Unilever Foundry – a unit of the company which facilitates test partnerships between its brands and start-ups – is one powerful way of translating such a philosophy into action.

And adopting a test-and-learn ethos is essential if large corporations are to adapt in an era of more nimble activation and execution throughout the product lifecycle.

"We like to think of it as rapid experimentation. You go out there, you have a new start-up or a new pilot idea, so you test it. If it fails, don't dwell on it. Learn from it [and] quickly move on to that next opportunity," Vance said.

The attitude, she added, is part of Unilever's DNA: "So much of [innovation] relies on the culture. If the culture within a company really encourages the idea of trying new things and not being afraid it is going to fail, that goes a long way."

Developing new products, Vance reminded the ARF attendees, is a long-term process that "doesn't happen overnight. Experimentation does happen overnight."

And the desire to consistently test and learn, in turn, is key to encouraging the long-term growth of "a culture that supports both innovation and early-stage experimentation but infusing that idea of being innovators."

Data sourced from WARC