“Dove is based on a patented innovation that we launched in 1957,” explained David Blanchard, Unilever’s Chief R&D Officer.
“While other soaps remove protein and fat in addition to dirt, our DEFI technology is pH-neutral, so it helps preserve skin moisture.”
Science, combined with technologies from its other brands/categories and ongoing deep consumer insights, has allowed Unilever to see its products as technology platforms for subsequent innovations, and as sources for branded differentiation.
“The tagline is always ‘Dove is different,’ and the ads bring out our functionality,” Blanchard explained.
The Dove platform was evident in the 1990s, when its competitors responded to the consumer craze for body washes with products that used standard surfactant chemistry (surfactants are compounds that separate things, like dirt from skin, dinner plates, or fabric). Dove applied its gentler tech to its body wash, but found that it impeded the foaming that users expected.
“Our first response was to change the formulation to improve foaming, but it reduced our performance lead,” Blanchard said. “So we looked to our tech portfolio more broadly, and found in our facial cleanser competency another surfactant, called glycinate, that preserved moisturizing qualities and generated lots of foam.”
Dove’s latest Advanced Care Antiperspirant Deodorant evidences similar tech and insights synergies.
“We’ve taken proprietary molecular tech developed for skin care, and found that it has efficacy in reducing underarm darkening [post-inflammatory pigmentation] while moisturizing,” Blanchard said.
“So we can meet consumers functionality needs with a unique proposition.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Unilever leads the UK in patents, with more than 20,000 worldwide. It also builds intellectual property around products, so when patents disappear, it has scale and other market advantages.
Another example of the company’s technology approach is in fragrance, which is a primary driver of consumer preference in most products (the gatekeeper to the product promise, so to speak).
Blanchard described it: “We first developed an encapsulated tech that released fragrance when you sweat, and we put it in deodorants. The second gen version was motion-release, so they burst when you rubbed them together, making them suitable for body wash, skin care and shampoo products. A combination of the two technologies powers our Rexona brand of performance deodorants.”
Building such technology platforms starts with consumer benefits, identified by the brands, and then an R&D roadmap on what’s possible within a focused 18-24 month time period. It has a research team working on ideas in a two- to five-year framework, and operates design centers by product category to constantly innovate against a global sustainability target that calls for Unilever to “double its business while halving its environmental impact.”
There’s also a strategic science group, armed with a brief to “go out there and find stuff that hasn’t yet been invented,” and research how it could be leveraged by Unilever.
“Our brands are inspired by consumer needs, and informed with science to meet those requirements, just like any other technology company,” Blanchard added.