Ben & Jerry's recently benefited from Unilever's AI algorithms. Source: Shutterstock

Ben & Jerry’s recently benefited from Unilever’s AI algorithms. Source: Shutterstock

What does Unilever do with AI at 27 of its data centers worldwide?

INTERESTING things — that the answer to the question in the headline.

The consumer goods company with EUR50.98 billion (US$57.40 billion) in revenues last year is using artificial intelligence (AI) in ways thought leaders have only envisioned thus far.

The UK-headquartered company has established 27 “People Data Centers” around the world to create compelling and intelligent insights that not only drive the organization’s marketing decisions but also new product development, logistics, and strategy.

According to a recent story on DigiDay, Unilever’s Ben & Jerry’s new cereal-flavored ice cream was a result of the company’s analysis of popular songs correlating ice-cream with breakfast.

In order to avoid any trouble with regulations and laws prevailing anywhere in the world, the company claims to be adhering to benchmarks set by the world’s most stringent data privacy law — the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

“Our business activities span a complex, global and cyclical value chain. The start of our value chain is consumer insight” the company said in its most recent annual report.

“We track changing consumer sentiment through our 27 People Data Centres around the world. Through close collaboration between marketing and R&D, we use our insights to inform product development, leveraging our EUR900 million (US$1.01 billion) annual R&D spend.”

Truth be told, data scientists and analysts at the 27 centers that Unilever has built are doing everything they can to prepare data for intelligent AI models that help transform the company’s actions in the marketplace.

Data is transforming Unilever’s marketing

Unilever is making a very clear move to not only bring the creation of content in-house, but also working on making more intelligent and personalized marketing messages. And the company is using its data to really understand how those messaging are impacting customer choices and decisions.

Last year, just over half of Unilever’s own workforce was comprised of millennials, which also means that the company really understands its audience — helping it tailor its marketing to deliver punchy and interesting messages.

“Improvements to measurement and verification of digital audiences ensures we maximize value in digital advertising alongside improvements in the measurement of influencer follower data.”

In the personal care division and across the business, Unilever understands that future growth will depend on accelerating the adoption of a new model of marketing focused on brands with purpose, generating great content, delivered via digital channels using advanced data and analytics.

Given the opportunities created by data, Unilever’s marketers are trying to create new consumer touchpoints.

For instance, Axe collaborated with DJ Martin Garrix to launch his Burn Out video with over 40 million YouTube views to date, celebrating the brand’s message of individuality.

In Latin America, Sunsilk partnered with an online influencer to co-create products for curly hair.

Both of these are quite local in their messaging but they not only resonate with Unilever’s target audience for the specific product and region but also create a deep impact in their minds about how they perceive the brand.

Unilever’s annual report mentions the company’s ambition to build one billion one-to-one consumer relationships through its People Data Centres which connect the organization with consumers in a responsible way using real-time analytics.

Data drives collaboration at Unilever — and success

“Our research aims to bring together the best thinking and ideas from wherever they exist – within Unilever and beyond, including universities and specialist companies.”

Last year, the company’s search for innovative startups to work with took executives all the way to Southeast Asia. It picked two innovative, digital-first, marketing companies — Pencil (of Singapore) and Vaze (of Malaysia) — to support some of the best brands within the Unilever ecosystem.

“We are working successfully with leading global technology companies to build world-class technology and data analytics infrastructure.”

However, the company still believes its People Data Centers, 27 of them, are at the core of everything they do.

Pioneered by the vision of the company’s CEO Paul Polman who vacated the seat on 1st January this year, it seems the company has taken major steps toward its digital transformation agenda in recent years — and the returns are just starting to roll in now.

“In our operations, we have already automated over 700 processes – saving time and reducing cost – and our in-house training programmes are increasingly focussed on the digital up-skilling of our own people.”

Unilever certainly has done quite well with all its digital efforts, and it seems like its strategies to leverage digital take into account all of the advice that think tanks such as McKinsey, BCG, AT Kearney and several others dole out to businesses embarking on their digital transformation.

In the coming months, things should get more interesting for the company using data and AI to open more doors and create more opportunities for itself.