A data revolution is coming, says Unilever's insights chief

Unilever: using AI to give recipe ideas to Knorr customers
Unilever: using AI to give recipe ideas to Knorr customers

A revolution is coming in the way brands and organisations gather customer insights.

That’s the view of Stan Sthanunathan, senior vice president, consumer & market insights at Unilever.

Speaking at the Market Research Society’s Impact 2016 event, Sthanunathan said: "The pace of change has never been slow but it’s only going to accelerate exponentially."

He said brands can spend too much time researching consumer groups when they need to act fast .

"Real-time is the new currency," he said, adding that researchers need to "stop hoarding information" but should "spread it widely."

Backing that approach, he announced the creation of Paragon, an open platform for Unilever and other major companies like Coca-Cola, Kantar, Nielsen, and The Market Research Society (MRS) to combine their market research forces in addressing key global development and sustainability challenges,

As well as a more sharing-focused information strategy, Sthanunathan said that brands should aim to think differently about the consumers from whom they gain their insights.

When looking at demographic groups, "think bi-polar," he said, adding that the middle is becoming smaller" and the "ends are becoming bigger and more polarised."

He added: "We have to not worry about consistency when we are talking to over-55s and millennials… and we also mustn’t underestimate the Power of One. It’s not always about large sample sizes but about influencers."

Get on board with AI and social

Sthanunathan said technology was key to gaining insights and reaching consumers. "There’s still a long way to go before technology takes over our lives but it will do so even more. Technology will become the tail that wags the dog."

That means brands must not just think about data but must be completely on board with all forms of technology that can offer insights, from social media to artificial intelligence and low-fi tech such as SMS texting.

"Be social or get ready to be branded anti-social," he said, explaining that brands need to be part of their customers’ social media conversations because it is when customers are speaking to friends and relatives via social that "they are telling the truth you need to know."

Taking technology further, Sthanunathan predicted a near future in which artificial intelligence will be key for interacting with consumers. He told Marketing that Unilever has been using both low-fi tech and advanced AI to reach consumers in markets worldwide.

In India, where 300m people have no access to TV or radio, the company has been running a low-tech initiative via SMS. "They call us but ring off after two rings. We call them back and ask what service they want, such as music. We serve up 20 or 30 minutes of free music interspersed with brand advertising."

Meanwhile in South Africa, Unilever’s Knorr brand Chef Wendy initiative has allowed customers to speak directly to the brand via AI. Consumers ask ‘Chef Wendy’ for tips on how to create a meal with just what they have in the house, often unaware that Chef Wendy is not a real person. The tips given can be brand-neutral but overall will favour Unilever products.

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