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What does Unilever offer start-ups?

Creating a stronger digital marketing strategy through start-up collaboration

25 European Corporate Startup Stars reveals which large companies are doing the most to support new firms. These case studies highlight some specific examples of active and successful collaboration between corporates and startups.

A good example of…

Solving business problems with start-ups

European Headquarters: London (UK)

Geographical reach: Global

Sectors of interest: consumer insights, digital marketing and media, products and ingredients, social enterprise, sustainability, and e-commerce and instore.

Works with start-ups through:

  • Unilever Ventures, which has invested a total of €550m in digital marketing solutions
  • The Foundry, which has launched 100 pilots over two years and offered mentorship from 300 marketing leaders
  • Procurement for over $15m in services from 100 start-ups

What does Unilever offer start-ups?

Creating a stronger digital marketing strategy through start-up collaboration

Why does Unilever work with start-ups?

The multinational consumer goods company Unilever aims to solve the problems its brands face through calling on marketing and technology start-ups to provide innovative solutions.

How does Unilever work with start-ups?

The Unilever Foundry – which launched two years ago and has established 100 pilots with start-ups – is based around a novel model. Its focus is on helping start-ups to scale-up, through giving innovative marketing and advertising tech companies the opportunity to pilot and then partner with Unilever’s billion-euro brands.

The Unilever Foundry also works closely with Unilever Ventures which actively invests equity in digital marketing companies, including over €550m in promising start-ups across the UK, Europe and around the world. For example, Discuss.IO was identified through the Unilever Foundry, mentored by Unilever’s Consumer and Markets Insights Team, and then invested in via Unilever Ventures. It now operates in over 20 countries.

What has Unilever done to facilitate collaboration with start-ups?

The Unilever Foundry connects start-ups with Unilever – through inviting them to solve problems experienced by Unilever brands. Business and brand managers use the ‘Pitch Pilot Partner’ process to craft a brief, which the Foundry then posts online for 10 weeks. Around 80 to 100 start-ups usually respond to call-outs, and five to six are selected to pitch to the heads of brand’s marketing departments. At least one start-up is then selected for a pilot, and if the pilot is successful Unilever signs a partnership.

Start-ups often provide Unilever brands with solutions to problems that offer more than the initial brief asked for. In response, the corporation has broadened its scope to create space for innovators to inspire them with ideas that push the boundaries of what’s possible.

The head of the Unilever Foundry is supported by a core team of eight people, who themselves support a global network of over 50 ‘Foundry Champions’ and ensure internal buy-in.

Success story: Brandtone

In 2010, Unilever Ventures co-founded Brandtone – a global provider of mobile marketing solutions, which helps consumer goods companies to develop strong and cost-effective relationships with customers.

Brandtone began by serving Unilever in South Africa, before Unilever Ventures helped it to scale internationally by raising over €20m in expansion capital with Verlinvest (the family investment arm of AB Inbev) and Syngenta Ventures.

Brandtone is now expanding into India, China, Indonesia and the US, as well as building on existing relationships in Brazil, Russia, South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya.


“Unilever is seriously committed in working with start-ups. In particular, the Unilever Foundry has been successful in supporting the growth of start-ups via procurement and strategic partnerships, while helping Unilever innovate its marketing efforts.”

Alberto Onetti, Corporate Startup Stars judge

What can other corporates learn from Unilever about working with start-ups?

  • The skills and talents of start-ups can be harnessed to help corporations solve problems, through the creation of call-outs for solutions (as the Unilever Foundry demonstrates)
  • Keeping the parameters of open call-outs flexible allows corporates to push the boundaries of what’s possible
  • A strong and connected team championing start-ups across an organisation leads to effective internal buy-in


What is Unilever looking for from the start-ups it works with?

Unilever is looking for start-ups with potential to scale-up, as well as creatives, designers and inventors. It is interested in the following areas of work: consumer insights, digital marketing and media, products and ingredients, social enterprise, sustainability, and e-commerce and instore.

How can start-ups get involved with Unilever?

Start-ups can register with The Foundry online and apply to one of the challenges it runs. In addition, young businesses can engage with Unilever through hackathons, virtual collaboration and ‘pitch to pilot’. Please check The Foundry website for more information.

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Image courtesy of SVC2UK CEO Summit 2015.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 644104.


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