Business Case Study: Unilever Corporate Culture & Values

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  • 0:00 About Unilever
  • 1:18 Corporate History
  • 2:22 Developing a Vision
  • 3:23 Current Corporate Culture
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Beth Loy

Dr. Loy has a Ph.D. in Resource Economics; master's degrees in economics, human resources, and safety; and has taught masters and doctorate level courses in statistics, research methods, economics, and management.

This lesson examines the corporate culture at Unilever. We analyze how the culture came about, when it changed course, and where it is today. Unilever is a unique company. From independence to sustainability, let's see how Unilever's culture evolved.

About Unilever

Have you ever used a bar of Dove soap, or eaten a tub of Ben & Jerry's ice cream? If you have, you know Unilever. With over 170,000 employees and $45 billion in revenue, Unilever is one of the top consumer goods companies in the world. Born from an 1885 British-Dutch partnership that merged several companies into one in 1930, the company has grown to produce many well-known products. You likely know Axe, Dove, Heartbrand, Knorr, Lipton, VO5, Nexxus, TRESemmé, Mrs. Dash, and Sunsilk, just to name a few.

The company has four divisions: foods, specialty chemicals, home care, and personal care. Every year, Unilever buys and sells large companies. It has sold companies we know like Slim Fast, Jiffy, and Bertolli in recent years. With an ever-changing portfolio, it's hard to imagine that the company can ever rely on a consistent corporate culture. You would think that a company that goes through this many changes would have difficulty developing into a corporation that interacts or behaves in a certain way. Unilever is in 170 countries, after all, and has a history of morphing its behaviors with different mergers and acquisitions.

Corporate History

World War II shaped Unilever's early corporate culture. Because of a lack of communication and transportation in many large markets, branches of the company began operating independently. For example, there were no routes to reach London during this time, so regional leaders had to make decisions based on what was profitable for them. They couldn't worry about what was going on in other geographical regions.

Unilever's corporate culture was one of independence where companies could be bought and sold based on their success in a specific geographical area. Even similar products were different depending on the region. A certain type of ice cream might be popular in one country but not so in another.

The company's purchase of Breyers in 1993 made Unilever the top ice cream producer in the United States. But in Russia, Inmarko is the most popular brand. Its purchase made Unilever the largest producer in Russia. As certain products become universally accepted, Unilever looks to develop a vision that focuses more on its successes from a corporate level. As in this example, corporate executives envisioned becoming the largest producer of ice cream world-wide.

Developing a Vision

After the war, a sense of globalization began to develop. Unilever went through various phases of diversification and consolidation during the '80s and '90s. The company invested in new products, and those products started to grow in popularity. As demand increased, the company's marketing vision started to take shape. For example, in 1969 Unilever broadcasted the UK's first ever color TV commercial, which marketed Bird's Eye peas.

Since then, the company has focused on similar innovation, finding ways to popularize new products at a global level. Two large events at Unilever stimulated another change in corporate culture. In 2004, the company advertised a new mission: Vitality, which was born out of the company's new Unilever Health Institute. Then, in 2008, Unilever was named the food sector leader in the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes. No other company had achieved this success. Prestige aside, the company was changing its corporate culture.

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