min read

From paper to pixels

by Christopher Smith , 12.10.2015

Joe Comiskey - head of the eCommerce Innovation and Strategy Team at Unilever – was the first speaker to take the stage at the GfK Future Consumer Summit 2015. He started the day by analyzing some of the major changes in the lifestyles of global consumers over the last decade, while also explaining how Unilever has adapted to this shifting landscape in order to prepare itself for what’s coming next.

Steve Jobs once said that “a lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show them”, of course referring to long line of Apple products successfully developed by the company under his tenure in command. Comiskey’s role at Unilever requires him to think similarly to Jobs: to bring ideas to Unilever that will result in the company developing products that are way ahead of the curve. He must provide solutions to the retail needs of tomorrow’s consumer.

How can this be done?

Comiskey pointed out several key macro/micro level changes that have had a major impact on a consumer’s lifestyle and need to be understood, but Mobile has been essential for many changes, as the proliferation of this particular technology is what has fed the majority of the others (e.g. 24/7 on demand, connected culture, a data-driven economy, digital payments).

As Comiskey explained, we live in a world where people expect their needs to be served immediately, regardless of what industry we look at. In retail, Amazon pioneered this with their next day delivery service, but any company who cannot offer such convenience today in 2015 is simply lagging behind. Furthermore, if you haven’t started thinking about mobile yet, then you might as well not bother starting now. It’s simply too late!

If we look at the change in consumer demographics, mobile technology has rapidly driven down the age gap between technology adopters and detractors, widening the age groups of audiences that companies must serve. Today, we have people who are living a lot longer, and where once age might have hindered their ability to take part in the retail economy, they are now able to keep actively participating. How? Through the use of voice commands and touchscreens, greater numbers of older consumers are actively participating in e-commerce, aided by these simple but effect technological innovations. So what are Joe and his team at Unilever doing to prepare themselves for similar shifts in the future?

In recent years, Unilever have implemented several strategies to equip themselves for any challenges the future consumer may present them, but one of the key things they have focused on is to make themselves a lot more externally focused, and to champion a more collaborative culture within the company. Today, many organizations still hold their cards extremely tightly to their corporate chests, whereas Unilever are doing the opposite of this. They have adopted this culture in order to paint the full picture of the consumer landscape, and develop relevant solutions to meet their needs. They have done this firstly by creating The Unilever Foundry to allow external companies to connect, share ideas and innovate with them, but also by hosting an annual Hackathon event, where over 200 external bodies are invited in to help develop fresh, new, sustainable business plans for the future.

Thinking about the future

Comiskey finished his talk by talking about Lucy, his vision for the mum of the future. Lucy lives in a world where her toothbrush sends the dentist updates about her oral hygiene; she is advised by her watch about how much sun scream to apply on herself and her children, so everyone is adequately protected against the sun’s UV rays; she gets in her driverless car to go to the hairdressers, and by the time she’s back home, the weekly food shop has arrived, delivered at the perfect time because of GPS data sent to the supermarkets from her car.

This vision of the future, if not a little scary in places, doesn’t actually seem so far from the realms of reality. By making progressive alterations to the company’s business strategy, Unilever is putting itself in a prime position to serve Lucy with everything she needs. Other brands should take note and consider aligning their strategies to the consumer of tomorrow.


For more information, please contact Christopher Smith at christopher.smith@gfk.com.