A VIRTUAL 'FIELD OF DREAMS' FOR ANY RETAILER, UNILEVER OPENED ITS SECOND CONSUMER INSIGHT AND INNOVATION CENTRE IN ITS STATE OF THE ART UK AND IRELAND HEADQUARTERS EARLIER THIS YEAR. USING CUTTING-EDGE TECHNOLOGY, THE CENTRE NOT ONLY PROMISES TO PROVIDE A BETTER INSIGHT INTO CONSUMER BEHAVIOUR, BUT ALSO TO DRIVE CATEGORY GROWTH. ORLA MURPHY PAID A VISIT TO THE LEATHERHEAD FACILITY
Checkout June 2010
Unilever is no stranger to growing its business in times of economic adversity. Having first set up in 1929 when the global economy fell into the Great Depression, demand for Unilever's affordable yet life-changing food and cleaning products soared despite global rising unemployment.
With a conception like that, it is no surprise that the company continues to innovate and expand its business. Unilever is now the thirdbiggest consumer foods company in the world, with sales of US $55 billion in 2009, and operations in 170 countries.
At a conference earlier this year, president of Unilever America, Michael Polk, spoke about the need for the company to demonstrate how it is helping to build categories with breakthrough shopper insight, innovation, and creative marketing ideas.
Polk's vision, and that of Unilever, is that growing categories -and thus the share of Unilever brands within these categories -is a far better long-term strategy than just taking market share from competitor brands.
It is this vision that is behind the company's unique Customer Insight and Innovation Centre (CiiC). So far, Unilever has opened up two of these centres -one in New Jersey last year, and the other at its UK and Ireland
facilities in Leatherhead, Surrey, in January of this year.
By the end of 20 10, Unilever will have five such centres opened -one in Paris, one in Shanghai, and another in Sao Paulo.
The CiiC concept is designed to enable Unilever to work with customers and shoppers to generate new category growth ideas and speed up their successful roll-out.
The European facility features a virtual reality suite and a retail laboratory which allows different scenarios -such as changes to a store's layout, shelf pIanograms or point-ofpurchase material -to be quickly tested and improved upon before they go to market.
According to the European CiiC director, Vera Marki Moser, the facility acts as a 'knowledge centre' where Unilever can work with its retail partners to use the internetbased search site to 'brainstorm' and find inspirational material.
"We are increasingly motivated to grow our categories with our customers. This facility enables us to work closely with our customers to identify new growth opportunities based on our shopper insights, and then use state-ofthe-art technology to convert our ideas into actions faster than ever before," she said.
Using the very latest in technology, the centre's database contains a plethora of consumer insights and shopping knowledge to stir debate and discussion with its retail customer before building concrete plans for the future.
Since the London site opened earlier this year, the Unilever team has welcomed retail customers from all over the world to experience the benefits of the centre for themselves. As James Simmons, VP customer development UK, said, the centre allows companies to do business quickly, while sharing insight and best practice from around the world and applying it to the customer's own needs.
Customer marketing director of the UK and Ireland, Julie Watson, told Checkout how the process works.
First, retail customers sit down with the Unilever team and, using the centre's online knowledge centre, which provides up-to-date shopping insights from around the world, a discussion is created and the creative juices are set flowing.
From the knowledge centre, customers are then moved into what Unilever describe as the 'engine room' next door. Using an 84-inch screen, retailers are presented with a planogram of their store where product images are presented on shelf.
According to Nick Widdowson, merchandising manager for the UK and Ireland, this facility allows the customer to review what products it should be swcking, how to stack them, and ultimately how to get more bang for each buck of shelving space.
Within this framework, the Unilever ream now works with retailers of all sizes to build or alter planograms.
With this facility including up to date information of unit movement, the company says that decisions on strategy can now be reached much quicker, with all the necessary information available to the decision makers in the room.
"This allows us to tame data and turn it into great insight -it has been rerrifically successful so far," said Simmons, adding that by having all the relevant decision makers in the one room at the one time, the benefits of increased efficiency make for better category growth.
This technology is also particularly useful for marketing teams to see how a new product stands out on shelf next to its competitors. However, the real magic of the CiiC begins when the 'hidden' doors within the 'engine room' open to reveal the virtual reality suite. Three projectors on a lOx 3 metre curved screen project 3D images to the customer which give the feeling of walking through an actual store.
The virtual reality technology means that rhe aisles of any supermarket can be replicated in virtual 3D and adapted to establish whether various ideas will work.
In pracrical terms, this means thar, at the touch of a button, the store environment can be changed to reflect a Tesco Extra supermarket, an Applegreen forecourt or a Spar c-store, for example.
With access to this 'virtual store', users can then 'walk through' the store, allowing them to examine category plans and view product packaging (in 2D or 3D). Furthermore, the screen can be programmed to reflect any KPIs (key performance indicators) desired using the red and green coding of the heat pad, whereby certain products will appear red or green depending on the KPI in question. For example, if a customer wanted to see which products were particular hotspots, the green colour on screen would reflect areas which the consumers always looked at, while the red colour would signifY areas the consumer hardly ever looked at.
More hocus-pocus style effects take place as a wall in the virtual reality room rises to reveal another 'hidden' feature -the CiiC retaillah. Here, a life-size model of two supermarket aisles allows the customer to connect the images it has just viewed on screen with reallife products on shelf.
With the space to stack a range of varying products on-shelf to suit a particular customer, this facility has been particularly rewarding according to the Unilever team, as final decisions can be made in real time, with many of the retail customers leaving the CiiC having reached a resolution.
Finally, when it comes to product design and store layout, eye-tracking has become the way forward to illustrate how a consumer views a supermarket aisle or a particular product and what draws their attention. Unilever hasn't been left behind in thi.' regard, with its own eye-tracking unit available within its virtual suite.
Using this eye-tracking device and by mimicking the feel of a shopping trolley, marketing teams can record every time the user's point of gaze rests on a particular point -whether it is a supermarket shelf, a product, or information contained on the packaging itself. The retail lab is alife-size model of two aisles, with eye traGking technology used to establish how consumers shop the category.
While it is easy to see how this exciting technology offered within the CiiC sites benefits the Unilever team and their own range of products, according to Nick Widdowson, the centre's success is down to the objectivity and accuracy of the data presented in order to grow the entire category, and not just Unilever products.
"If a (rival) product sells well, it gets a space on the planogram, and that's that. It's got to be objective if you want to do it right and reap the benefits in the long term. You have got to do right by the category. It's in nobody's interest not to show the truth," he said.
According to James Simmons, with export commodity prices set to rise and a fragile consumer sentiment remaining despite a gradual economic recovery, the industry requires a better recipe for success in the future.
Positioning the customer centre stage and building category value through innovation and improved category management is, he believes, the way to do this. In this respect, Unilever's Customer Insight and Innovation Centre is at the forefront of this thought process. By understanding the consumer better, and by sharing this global knowledge and insight and applying it differently to each retail customer, Unilever is in a strong position to maintain its role as one of the true innovators in FMCG today.
The knowledge centre -retail customers first sit down with the Unilever team and, using up-to-date shopping insights from around the world, a discussion is created before moving on to the 'engine' room.