Why images on mobile are no longer Unilever’s blind spot

Technology and media are driving a consumer movement toward a more visual culture and Unilever is taking notice, making strides to understand how images on smaller screens can drive sales.

The company’s online sales are booming, in fact they are growing at twice the rate of the global e-commerce market as traditional retailers like Tesco and pure-play proposition like Ocado improve their digital offerings to encourage more shoppers to shop online. That demand has opened up a potentially lucrative arena for the likes of Unilever to explore, particularly amid the fragmentation of media across smaller screens.

With the consumption of mobile media at a tipping point, making products stand out on smaller screens has been among Unilever’s biggest challenges. Speaking to The Drum recently, Joe Comiskey, lead e-commerce innovation and strategy manager at the world’s second biggest advertiser said nailing its images has been a key component to its success so far.

“We worked with Cambridge University and retailers to essentially put together best practice. When people are moving from a screen that is 12 inches to one that’s two then clearly there’s a challenge in how to inspire people to buy products. For the majority of people on a mobile they can’t really see what they’re buying yet a image is the most important factor in their decision making,” he said.

“It’s not about jumping on the latest technology – it’s about how to make things frictionless. [Unilever] working on [improving] images doesn’t require other people to do things, we’re simply trying to use tech to enable a frictionless experience.”

Social commerce is also an increasingly interesting area for Unilever. As Facebook opened up its bot service earlier this month the potential for people to buy directly within chat apps such as Messenger became a likelier prospect.

Once again, the turning point rests on the experience being frictionless as well as making sure customers are comfortable sharing their data – such as bank card details – across such platforms.

“I don’t think we’ll be having a conversation about it in a few years’ time. It will just become a normal way of working,” said Comiskey. “I can’t go into details – most of it is in the initial stages – but [social commerce] is certainly something Unilever is looking at.”

There’s also the opportunity to export this to countries which, like the UK, are further ahead in embracing online commerce. China is a key market when it comes to Unilever’s experiments on e-commerce, having a dedicated team to capitalise on the early momentum there.

“Momentum in Southeast Asia has improved and we are growing strongly in e-commerce in China which has nearly doubled over the last year largely through our partnership with Alibaba and JB.com,” said Andrew Stephen, head of investor relations on Unilever’s recent earnings call (14 April), adding that around seven per cent of its business is in e-commerce but that it’s aiming for 10 per cent by the end of the year.

This could yet improve as consumers become more willing to use channels like WeChat for their shopping needs.

It's little surprise then that the FMCG giant’s interest in driving more business through e-commerce channels is the foundation for its upcoming Hackathon. While it’s previously focused on sustainability, this year’s will be about innovation around e-commerce.

“We’re working on the brief now but it will definitely be around how to drive e-commerce,” said Comiskey.

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