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Unilever’s Latest Investment Targets New Route into Homes

August 2, 2017, 11:57 AM UTC
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 07: CEO of Unilever Paul Polman is photographed for Fortune magazine on March 7, 2013 in London, England.
Harry Borden

Consumer goods giant Unilever (UL) has announced an investment into Helpling, the Berlin-headquartered home-cleaning platform.

Helpling, which was founded by the German internet firm Rocket Internet, operates across much of western Europe, as well as Australia, Singapore and Dubai. For Unilever, the service provides a new way to sell its home care products.

The investment reportedly totals “several million euros” and comes from Unilever Ventures, an arm that the company is using to capture fast-growing opportunities while its core staples such as Dove soap and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream eke out more modest gains. The venture wing’s previous investments this year include meal-kit outfit Sun Basket, skincare brand True Botanicals, customer care platform Limitless and digital ad platform Celtra.

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Helpling previously announced €10 million in new funding in March of this year, from backers including Rocket Internet and Asia Pacific Internet Group (APACIG), a joint venture of Qatar-based telecoms giant Ooredoo. However, Helpling CEO Benedikt Franke said this was an entirely separate investment.

“We are both after a similar target group,” Franke said, suggesting that Unilever is moving from a “make and buy” model to one that embraces the trend towards services. He compared the deal to auto-makers’ investments in ride-hailing and sharing services, saying: “Big car manufacturers invest in those companies because their ultimate goal is to provide transport.”

Indeed, Helpling and Unilever have been working together for some time, for example promoting the home-cleaning service on stickers attached to Unilever’s products in the Netherlands.

It’s not yet entirely clear how the closer relationship will work in practice. Helpling’s cleaners use the products that customers already have at home, and Franke suggested this still “makes sense.” However, he said ideas that will be tested include offering cleaning packages to new Helpling customers, and offering cleaning products as part of the Helpling subscription – 90 percent of the service’s customers use its services on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Unilever’s biggest brands in cleaning are Domestos bleach and the washing powders Persil and Omo.

“We have a three-hour delivery window every week or every two weeks,” Franke said. “That’s the moment which is super-suited to not only cleaning products but having things delivered. While you’re at work, the cleaner can also open the door for the handyman. It’s about getting the right products for your apartment to your door and make sure you don’t run out of products.”