Tips and tricks: how Unilever and others collaborate for growth

The ultimate ingredient for the future of commerce and growth is collaboration. Or so it was claimed at a panel discussion at the Millennial 20|20 Summit in London this week. But collaboration is not easy to deliver, especially when it’s with people you don’t know, or may not entirely trust. Think about when someone criticises your work. Do you receive their feedback in a positive spirit? Do they serve up their feedback in a constructive way? Do you ever feel the need to work together generates meetings that frankly get in the way of getting anything done? In this blog, we capture the panellists’ lessons on how to manage the often tricky relationship between two unequal partners, how to make sure the partnership is set up for success from the start, and how to collaborate internally too.

The panel featured Global Marketing Director of the Unilever Foundry, Jonathan Hammond, Brand Learning’s co-CEO Nevine El-Warraky, The Guardian’s Chief Strategy Officer James Down and Stuart’s Head of Business development Nicole Mazza. Moderator Ian Jindal set the tone when he asked:

A partnership between a big business and a start-up can sound as balanced as a lion partnering with a gazelle. How does a start-up stop the lion jumping on them and devouring their flesh?

It’s a fair question.

Unilever’s Foundry has learned that collaboration works best with companies at the right stage of development – after first-round funding, with a proven product, business model and route to market. Start-ups in an earlier stage of their development can be dominated by the bigger partner – but for them, this approach finds the sweet spot that makes the partnership work.

Collaborating partners need to be clear on the value each wants from the other. As Brand Learning’s Nevine el-Warraky said, start-ups can disrupt the market in a way that big companies don’t have the competency or appetite for. Indeed start-ups are often growing much faster than the bigger partner – the opportunity together is to accelerate that growth and scale it.  That was illustrated by a Unilever France experience where Signal toothpaste collaborated with Playbrush to crack a problem in a way nobody at Unilever was looking into. The Signal Playbrush helped parents win the battle to get their children to thoroughly, voluntarily, brush their teeth, by using a dongle to monitor brushing and unlock a smartphone game as a reward. 


For the Guardian, external partners are given an internal buddy to help them navigate the organisation and get the results they seek – and set up commercial agreements from the outset that set out the mutual value.

A key challenge though is not the framework for collaboration or the commercial agreement, it is finding people who share your spirit of collaboration. That, the panel admitted, is harder. Whether interviewing employees, or interviewing external partners, picking out their attitudes can be difficult. Nothing can beat time spent together. But it’s important to look at how you show up too.

Personal lessons for being collaborative

In that vein, panellists shared their personal lessons on how to be collaborative, and the behaviours they’ve now adopted. Here are our favourites:

  1. When meeting potential partners, be genuinely open-minded about what the outcome of a conversation could be, rather than holding a fixed objective.

  2. Empathise with people with different views on how to get to a solution, and recognise the value of different thinking.

  3. Create a common purpose and set of shared values to bond partners and forge strong connections internally or externally.

  4. Recognise that partnerships deliver validated learning and know-how – only by trying new approaches will you find out what works, so don’t see it as win or lose – see it as learning together for future success.

Brand Learning helps organisations, people and leaders build their capabilities to deliver growth. If you’d like to discuss how we can support you in lifting your partnership and collaboration capabilities contact us.

BRAND LEARNING: Inspiring people. Lifting capabilities. Growing organisations.