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How Unilever is Leveraging AI to Drive Innovation and Sustainability

Unilever has remained committed to leveraging AI to drive innovation, increase efficiency, and advance environmental goals. The company's strategy has been to incorporate AI into many elements of its operations, including product creation, customer interaction, and supply chain management.

Unilever, a large consumer goods corporation, has taken the lead in adopting artificial intelligence (AI) and digital technologies into its operations. AI is playing a significant role in Unilever’s efforts to develop faster and smarter while remaining dedicated to sustainability. Unilever has remained committed to leveraging AI to drive innovation, increase efficiency, and advance environmental goals. The company’s strategy has been to incorporate AI into many elements of its operations, including product creation, customer interaction, and supply chain management.

AI in Research and Development

Unilever’s R&D teams have utilised AI to revolutionise the way they find, develop, and market new products. Unilever’s use of machine learning and high-performance computers enables them to make significant discoveries about human biology and the interactions between the body and microbiome. This data-driven strategy enables the company to identify and forecast industry trends, ensuring that its products meet evolving client demands.

Unilever employs cutting-edge technology into product creation, from pioneering skincare products that leverage microbiome research to promote skin health to developing Axe A.I., a next-generation deodorant aimed at Gen Z that draws on 46 terabytes of data and 6,000 ingredients.

They revolutionised cosmetics with Hourglass Red 0, the first vegan alternative to red carmine, which uses computational models to ensure animal welfare and product sustainability. Their Comfort Ultimate Care fabric conditioners, which employ machine learning, maintain garment quality in a range of global settings, while their commitment to healthy diets is backed up by extensive data analysis to increase nutritional profiles.

In the out-of-home ice cream sector, Unilever employs “smart freezers” that utilise data analytics to optimise product availability and automate inventory management, ensuring that outlets always meet local demand. 

Alberto Prado, Global Head of Digital & Partnerships at Unilever R&D, highlighted the transformative impact of AI: “I firmly believe that science and technology will play a central role in helping innovate for a better future. The combination of digital and leading-edge science is empowering our teams to progress their fields not by years, but by decades” .

AI in Product Design

Unilever’s product design process also incorporates artificial intelligence. The firm use computer models to simulate and test millions of recipe combinations in seconds. This “in-silico” technique enables Unilever to create goods that appeal to regional tastes while also ensuring safety without the need for animal testing. For example, AI can anticipate biological reactions to particular substances, which supports Unilever’s commitment to a global prohibition on animal testing in cosmetics.

Samantha Tucker-Samaras, Global Vice President Science & Technology, Beauty and Personal Care R&D for Unilever, highlights Unilever’s leadership in skincare and personal care innovation through AI and machine learning.

“AI is transforming our approach to skincare challenges such as acne and aging,” Samaras emphasizes. By harnessing digital biology and AI technologies, Unilever delves deep into the intricate biological processes underlying these common issues, facilitating the development of advanced, scientifically-backed solutions.

Unilever’s dedication to sustainability and customer safety is seen in their creative use of AI, such as the creation of Hourglass Red Zero lipstick, a vegan alternative to typical red pigments produced by precise AI-driven formulation. This not only speeds product development, but it also matches with Unilever’s aim of developing sustainable and effective skincare solutions.

“Through AI and machine learning, we are uncovering new insights into the role of the human microbiome in skin health,” Samaras explains. This research underscores Unilever’s dedication to merging cutting-edge technology with rigorous scientific research, paving the way for future breakthroughs in beauty and personal care.

AI in Supply Chain and Manufacturing

Unilever’s AI activities cover supply chain and manufacturing processes. Unilever optimises product deployment for its worldwide consumer base by merging R&D and supply chain data with production simulations. Real-time response improves operational efficiency and sustainability. 

Unilever has established the AI Horizon3 Lab, a ground-breaking effort aiming at using artificial intelligence to drive innovation and accelerate development throughout its worldwide operations. The lab, led by the Unilever Operations Data and Analytics team, operates on a hybrid approach, encouraging cooperation among Unilever workers, academia, entrepreneurs, and industry experts to tackle various AI research topics.

Andy Hill, Chief Data Officer at Unilever, emphasizes the company’s substantial investment in AI technology, stating, “The launch of Unilever’s first AI lab will expedite the progress we are making globally and enable us to have the right focus on some of the big questions we want to answer with AI.” Located in Toronto, the lab strategically taps into the city’s vibrant tech ecosystem and talent pool to advance Unilever’s capabilities in AI-driven insights and solutions.

The lab will first focus on forecasting, graph technology for complicated data linkages, and generative AI (Gen AI) for trend analysis, with the goal of making immediate benefits while setting the path for future innovation. Gary Bogdani, Head of Horizon3 AI Innovation Labs at Unilever, discusses Gen AI’s disruptive potential in consumer communication and data intelligence, showcasing its capacity to expedite content distribution and improve customer interactions.

The lab’s methodology combines diversified skills and creative collaborations to generate disruptive solutions that challenge traditional methods and reshape company operations throughout the globe. With a dedication to pushing the frontiers of possibility, Unilever sees the Horizon3 Lab as a catalyst for substantial, long-term effect throughout its whole ecosystem. Unilever intends to roll out this technology across other brands in 2024, incorporating its customer support personnel within the app to give more assistance.

AI in Customer Engagement and Accessibility

Unilever has teamed up with Be My Eyes, an accessibility app expert, to improve the culinary experience for customers who are blind or have limited vision by utilising AI technology. This cooperation builds on Unilever’s global goal of incorporating digital experiences into product packaging, such as Zappar’s Accessible QR (AQR) codes, to change how customers engage with their brands.

Initially introduced in the United Kingdom with Colman’s Singapore Noodles Meal Maker, this promotion allows purchasers to access the Be My Eyes app by scanning the AQR code on the packaging. They may either ask volunteers to read and describe cooking directions or communicate with an AI-chat bot powered by Chat GPT-4 that is particularly trained on Colman product information. Unilever plans to spread out this technology across its other brands by 2024, putting customer support professionals within the app to provide more assistance.

Rachana Dongre, Head of Digital Innovation, Strategy & Innovation at Unilever, underscores their commitment: “We’ve accelerated our pack digitization to enhance brand engagement and shopping experiences, and now we’re focused on using digital innovations to make our products more accessible. Zappar’s AQR codes and Be My Eyes integration represent a groundbreaking step towards inclusivity, ensuring blind and low vision shoppers have equal access to product information from the store aisle to their kitchen.”

Be My Eyes CEO, Michael Buckley, highlights the significance of this partnership: “Unilever’s adoption of Zappar’s technology with Be My Eyes marks a new era in product accessibility and convenience for the blind and low vision community, ensuring they can independently access crucial information about the products they buy.”

Caspar Thykier, CEO of Zappar, emphasizes the transformative potential: “By combining Zapvision’s technology with Be My Eyes’ AI integration, we’re enabling a more conversational and assistive experience, setting a new standard for product accessibility and consumer empowerment.”

AI in Recruitment and Training

Unilever’s recruitment process has been changed by strategically integrating AI, resulting in greatly increased efficiency and effectiveness. The journey begins with a rigorous evaluation phase in which candidates take part in a video-recorded interview assisted by HireVue’s AI technology. This virtual interviewing system analyses responses not just for content, but also for nuances like word choice, tone, and facial expressions, and links them with qualities seen in high-performing Unilever employees. This method effectively screens 45,000 applications down to a final 300, resulting in a 25% higher offer rate and an 82% acceptance rate.

Given Unilever’s global footprint and annual application volume of over 1.8 million, this AI-driven strategy saves substantial time and money. Unilever collaborated with Pymetrics to establish an online platform in which candidates play games to assess aptitude and logical reasoning, followed by a video interview evaluated by machine learning algorithms. This system saves approximately 70,000 person-hours that would otherwise be spent on interviews and testing, therefore speeding up the recruitment process.

Leena Nair, Unilever’s Ex Chief Human Resources Officer & Member of the Unilever Leadership Executive, emphasizes the focus on identifying candidates with systemic thinking, resilience, and business acumen. She highlights that AI not only aids in candidate selection but also provides detailed feedback to every applicant, promoting a more inclusive and transparent process. This blend of human insight and AI-driven efficiency marks Unilever’s commitment to leveraging technology for strategic talent acquisition while maintaining a personalized candidate experience.

Unabot, a natural language processing bot, may also help employees by addressing real-time queries concerning human resources, information technology systems, and other operational issues. This AI integration in HR processes highlights Unilever’s innovative approach to boosting employee engagement and operational efficiency via intelligent automation.

AI for Sustainability

Unilever promotes sustainability, and artificial intelligence (AI) plays a vital part in achieving business goals. Unilever plans to replace all carbon derived from fossil fuels in its Home Care products with renewable or recycled carbon.Unilever collaborated with Arzeda to develop stronger stain-fighting enzymes for their cleaning and laundry products utilising AI technology. This cooperation employs Arzeda’s Intelligent Protein Design Technology, which blends artificial design and physics-based approaches to create enzymes that significantly enhance cleaning performance while reducing the number of components required by around 50%. Surprisingly, this milestone was completed in only 18 months, five times faster than Unilever had projected.

Peter ter Kulve, President, Ice Cream, highlighted the transformative impact of AI and biology convergence on the home care industry. He emphasized that the rapid progress with Arzeda’s technology underscores its potential as a game-changer for sustainable product innovation in cleaning and laundry sectors.

This programme is consistent with Unilever’s Clean Future vision, which aims to produce products that are both high-performing and ecologically sustainable. The newly created enzymes, which are organically sourced and low in carbon, demonstrate Unilever’s commitment to minimising environmental effect while preserving or improving product performance.

Previously, Unilever used AI technology at its Materials Innovation Factory (MIF) in Liverpool to automate the creation of science-based goods. The MIF houses a large number of robots specialised to material chemistry research, allowing Unilever to analyse data swiftly while maintaining strict quality standards across its product testing and development processes. This technical achievement demonstrates Unilever’s continuous commitment to innovation and sustainability, which supports the company’s ambitious aim of achieving net zero emissions across all products by 2039.

Generative AI Initiatives

Maria Varsellona, Chief Legal Officer and Company Secretary at Unilever, emphasizes the strategic integration of generative AI across their global legal landscape. Unilever has established Legal Powerhouses in key locations like Bangalore, Mexico City, and Barcelona, each equipped with advanced AI tools. These teams, comprising skilled legal professionals, utilize AI to manage a wide range of legal tasks, including contract drafting, compliance audits, and intellectual property matters.

Generative AI has transformed Unilever’s legal processes, greatly increasing efficiency and operational flexibility. By automating typical operations like legal research and document review, AI enables Unilever’s legal teams to devote more time to complicated legal issues and strategic projects. Varsellona emphasises that, while AI enables faster job execution, human oversight is still required to ensure accuracy and conformity with legal norms.

The integration of AI into Unilever’s legal framework not only reduces costs and improves operating efficiency, but it also boosts the organization’s capacity to negotiate legal challenges on a worldwide scale. Varsellona sees AI as a transformational force that enables its lawyers to provide high-quality legal services with greater agility and accuracy. Unilever’s strategic use of technology places them at the forefront of innovation in legal service delivery, confirming their commitment to operational excellence and legal compliance across many markets.

Collaborations in AI

Unilever’s success with AI efforts is aided by strategic partnerships with industry leaders, technology businesses, and academic institutions. Some major partnerships include:

Accenture: Unilever has collaborated with Accenture to investigate novel uses of generative AI and expand AI solutions throughout its operations. This cooperation takes advantage of Accenture’s AI Navigator and proprietary “switchboard” to meet specific business circumstances.

Microsoft: Unilever collaborated with Microsoft to create AI-powered engines that improve product development and customer insights. This alliance makes use of Microsoft Azure to help with analytics and data-driven decision-making.

Be My Eyes: Unilever partnered with Be My Eyes to include AI-powered virtual help into their goods, improving accessibility for visually challenged customers.

Pymetrics: Unilever collaborated with Pymetrics to simplify recruiting procedures using machine learning algorithms, resulting in more efficient talent acquisition.

Conclusion

Unilever’s use of AI throughout its business demonstrates how technology can drive innovation, increase efficiency, and promote sustainability. Unilever is using AI to address present customer expectations while also paving the road for a more sustainable future. Andy Hill, the company’s chief data officer, stated, “The launch of Unilever’s first AI lab will expedite the progress we are making globally and enable us to have the right focus on some of the big questions we want to answer with AI” .

Unilever’s approach to harnessing AI and digital technology demonstrates its commitment to innovation and sustainability, assuring its continued leadership in the consumer products market.

Picture of Anshika Mathews
Anshika Mathews
Anshika is an Associate Research Analyst working for the AIM Leaders Council. She holds a keen interest in technology and related policy-making and its impact on society. She can be reached at anshika.mathews@aimresearch.co
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