Overview of research & development in Unilever

The R&D function at Unilever employs over 6,000 professionals located in 20 countries spanning the globe from Mexico to Australia.

Scientist at Unilever’s R&D centre in ShanghaiA variety of job types

Roles range from those who break ground at the forefront of science to professional hairdressers and chefs who evaluate new products. Each role has an equally important focus: understanding the consumer, their lifestyle, needs and wants so that our brands deliver a great experience, every time.

With such a diverse set of roles, it’s no surprise that the portfolio of projects is also broad, with some taking decades to come to fruition while others deliver new products onto supermarket shelves within months.

It is this balance of long and short term projects that is crucial to Unilever R&D’s success; on the one hand correctly identifying the next breakthrough technologies and on the other being able to rapidly respond to competitor activity, or an opportunity to gain market share.

Research centres & people

The work of Research is to create proven breakthrough innovations which can then be developed further into fully formulated products. Research is carried out at six laboratories in the US, UK, Netherlands, India and China. Read more about our R&D centres and people. The labs cooperate closely with project team members often being chosen from different locations for their expertise in a particular scientific area that’s critical to the delivery of that project. Increasingly project teams will also partner with the very best university academics and specialist companies.  Nearly half of Unilever’s ‘pipeline’ of innovations now utilises open innovation.

Achieving breakthrough innovations starts with what we call ‘disruptive technology’, namely technology that makes a big impact on the market by meeting consumer needs better than all available alternatives.

In 2009 we launched the ‘Genesis Programme’, a more robust process for fuelling our longer term innovation pipeline. Genesis applies disruptive technology and consumer insights across multiple categories, enabling much bigger market opportunities. An example of applying one technology across different product categories is our Signal White Now toothpaste uses whitening technology first developed for our laundry brands.

Global & Regional Development Centres

Development is carried out at 31 Global Development Centres and over 90 Regional Development Centres. Here we take the breakthrough technologies from research and optimise them for launch. This includes activities such as: perfecting a formulation so that it is aesthetically pleasing and stable when stored; developing packaging that suits the product format, delights the consumer and minimises environmental impact; and ensuring the product is ready for large scale factory production. Other specialists develop fragrances, explore nutritional content and test products with consumers to ensure they live up to performance promises.

Product launch

Once all this is complete, the regional teams are then responsible for launching the product into their region. They draw on a deep understanding of local factors such as consumer preference, regulatory framework, legal considerations and competitor products.

At every stage in the process, the R&D teams collaborate closely with colleagues in marketing and supply chain to ensure the new product fits with the brand and can be successfully manufactured and distributed.

They also look at a technology that has been successfully used in one product category to see if it can be applied in another.