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Unilever puts digital transformation in the hands of IT

The global IT director of digital marketing at Unilever explains how the firm has managed digital transformation by shifting the role of the IT team

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: IT spreads innovation at Unilever

Unilever is a global business that represents more than 40 brands, including Dove, Lipton and Knorr, and each has its own target market.

Vineet Bhalla, global IT director of digital marketing at Unilever, claims over half of the households on the planet have at least one Unilever product in them.

But until a few years ago, Unilever’s IT remit was seen as more of a barrier than an enabler.

When Jane Moran joined Unilever as CIO in 2014, she was the first person to take the role as a technologist as opposed to approaching it from a business angle.

“We have traditionally had CIOs who have been from finance or maybe a supply chain. Everyone brings different strengths, and suddenly now we talk about IT as an enabler and not as a cost,” says Bhalla

The company began working on a digital transformation, with the aim of using “more for less” across all of its brands without catering for “the lowest common denominator”.

This shift began with the focus on IT as part of the business as a whole rather than a back-end function.

“That’s a big shift in thinking,” says Bhalla. “We’ve been a closed loop over the past few years, but that’s starting to change. IT sits at the table with business and that’s not happened before.”

The firm also had to move away from the idea of IT as driven through projects, and instead embrace the idea that digital transformation is a continuous process which keeps delivering benefit without coming to a definitive end.

All brands great and small

The way Unilever was previously approaching digital across its various brands was causing problems such as duplication, overlap and a lack of investment in experimentation.

Unilever aimed to take a platform-based approach to technology, but wanted to use common tools where necessary, without inhibiting the capability of individual brands to scale and innovate.

Two of the main barriers for Unilever’s transformation were the number of technologies available in the market, as well as the segmented approach to adopting new technologies without thinking about the organisation as a whole.

“This is no longer a marketing IT challenge,” says Bhalla. “This is an organisational challenge.”

The firm noticed many of its brands were already innovating, so it developed a platform that enabled these innovations to be shared across the business, whilst still allowing the brands to scale and implement more complex systems should they need them.

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This prevents the firm from implementing a centralised platform by which larger brands, which are capable of more, are held back by some of the smaller brands under the Unilever umbrella.

Vishnu Indugula, vice-president at global digital agency and Unilever partner SapientNitro, says when attempting this level of digital transformation, where companies usually go wrong is in thinking of transformation as an end goal.

“One of the things you need to realise is that it is a journey,” says Indugula. “It isn’t a destination. It’s not about implementing a product. It’s about the long-term strategy to transform an entire organisation.”

As customers become more demanding, Indugula says consumers are comparing all businesses to the last experience they had with a brand. For example, if the last thing a customer did was order an Uber, they will expect their next experience to be just as simple, regardless of what the next brand they interact with might be.

“It isn’t a destination. It’s not about implementing a product. It’s about the long-term strategy to transform an entire organisation”
Vishnu Indugula, SapientNitro

To cope with this when trying to innovate and evolve, businesses should leverage what they have already built, such as customer brand recognition, any existing brand loyalty and data that has been collected.

In Unilever’s case, there are many different long-standing brands that consumers are aware of, even if they are not aware of the parent company.

“The company has built brands over the years that are very well known to consumers,” says Indugula. “But it needs to adapt to this new world, and how it’s thinking about digital and marketing.”

Further innovations from Unilever

As well as trying to implement a more digital and centralised platform for transformation and innovation, Unilever has changed the way it approaches other areas too, such as legal practices and recruitment.

The firm is aiming to embrace failures to adopt a test and learn attitude, making it more agile as a whole.

Unilever is also looking for startups to work with, rather than attempting to implement all services and platforms in-house.

As well as this, the firm is using a virtual reality system to interview potential graduates for jobs, reducing the recruitment process from six months to two weeks.

All of these little innovations are helping Unilever to close what Indugula calls the “adoption gap” – the difference between the speed and type of technology consumers are using and the type of technology a business is capable of adopting at scale.

This gap will only get wider if firms avoid innovation and agility, according to Indugula.

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