How Colgate-Palmolive Is Using Startup Technology to Better Understand its Customers

    By Bharath Haridas & Natalia Markovskaia Published on Aug. 5, 2020
    Colgate-Palmolive is a global organization that has heavily invested in building a deep understanding of its customers to help improve their daily lives. This is not a newfound strategy for the company. It has been the bedrock of its success for multiple centuries. 

    In the 206 years of its existence, the company’s 38,000 employees have been inspired and motivated by a customer centric approach. This is becoming more sophisticated by the day with a concerted effort to find startup technology that can achieve the unimaginable.

    Just ask Gary Binstock - Director of Technology for Tech Scouting at Colgate-Palmolive. “There are some fantastic tools on the market now,'' Gary explains enthusiastically, “for example, crowdsourcing consumer research using IoT technology or selling products in the moment-of-need to a younger, increasingly mobile, audience. All these new areas are going to be important to our future.” Driven to understand these developments and Colgate’s customers better, in 2019, Gary moved to the Bay Area for a full-time in-residence assignment at the Plug and Play headquarters.

    He is tasked with scouting for the most innovative startups in the world to partner with Colgate as the company tries to understand a global and more mobile audience. The goal is to build quick, commercial relationships that can enrich Colgate’s graph of knowledge on their customers, their behavior, and their future needs.

    “We realize that we need to put innovation back into our products, our business processes, and in the way we sell products to the consumer.”

    Before moving, Gary was hesitant about the benefits of having feet on the ground in the Bay Area and whether or not it would move the needle. It hasn’t taken long for Gary to make a full 180 on his initial belief. Within just three months, he was convinced of the value that his new Silicon Valley outpost could deliver.

    “In just 10 weeks of me being here we’ve heard 250 startup pitches, 30 private dealflow sessions, and at least 3 projects moving forward. In a very short time, the Colgate-Palmolive team in the Bay Area has some tangible results under our belt to take back to the head office on the East Coast.”

    The First Taste of Success

    Through Plug and Play’s ‘Brand & Retail’ selection day, Gary discovered Bobly which has become a key customer success project for Colgate. Bobly sets up mobile engagement centers, kiosks if you will, that engage consumers in various places – in malls, airports or, interestingly for Colgate, in dental offices. 

    “Bobly allows us to reach consumers and engage them in places where they're primed to make a purchase or learn more about our products,” Gary explains, “it's a great way to get to the younger generation in particular who do more in-the-moment shopping.”

    Bobly rents the retail space, installs and manages the kiosks as well as the software behind the engagement platform. Once the kiosks are live, Bobly also takes control of deploying Colgate’s content, collecting customer data, and tracking interaction metrics for Gary’s team. 

    Because he is physically present in the Bay Area, Gary can easily engage Bobly’s team.  Working together, they quickly created a proposal specific to Colgate’s unique customer research needs, before taking it to the key stakeholders. They were able to get buy-in from senior management much faster than they could from across the country.

    All Aboard

    Having a turnkey solution was important for Gary to push a pilot without too much friction from the Colgate team. He says, “I'm pitching to functional leaders who will own these types of projects, specifically to my CTO, and then framing the ones that could add big value to our business.”

    Together they made further internal pitches to business unit leaders who would be directly impacted by Bobly’s engagement kiosks – sales, market research and product packaging. Gary understands that internal leaders must be aligned for innovation projects to succeed.

    A challenge and source of tremendous learning for Gary has been wearing the shoes of Colgate’s functional leaders. He says “if I'm the chief sales officer, and I have 500 people in my teams, how do I get a laser focus to say, here’s a couple of priorities that I feel strongly could change our business. Let’s go out and find innovative ideas to build on these.”

    “Innovation projects are not just driving, sales or profitability. They're driving investment into Colgate-Palmolive’s future.”

    “I want everyone to be on board with the idea before kick-off,” Gary describes, “so we asked important questions from unit leaders – do you feel the project helps you address the biggest priorities for your function? Would you be willing to put resources behind it? and so on.'' When every stakeholder for the project agrees on the specifics, things move quickly. 

    “We are now working to put 40 kiosks in malls and dental offices,” Gary announces, “with some really cool products like augmented reality toothbrushes that are a perfect fit for engaging customers.”

    Kiosks are R&D

    For Gary and his colleagues, the opportunity to engage customers in the moment of purchase is very valuable. They also receive completely new types of engagement analytics and the customer’s contact info to continue the engagement later. 

    In return, the customer gets to play a game, such as a roulette wheel or a challenge, and receive an instant discount. They even have the ability to dispense samples directly from the kiosk. Gary is visibly excited about Colgate’s partnership with Bobly, “the project now has a dedicated team pushing it forward at a significant scale.

    ”Gary is already thinking about the long-term impact for Colgate. Moving forward, his focus is on the lessons that the team can learn and then use to change the process at Colgate. “Learning is a KPI”, he says, “we do lots of internal research, 90% of which never winds up in a product. So, I'm trying to change the conversation that investing in specific strategic startups is basically R&D for Colgate-Palmolive.”

    “Learning is a KPI. I'm trying to change the conversation that investing in specific strategic startups is R&D for our future.”

    Ultimately, every innovation project today is a step towards building a competitive advantage for the future and Gary understands this after spending just 3 months in the Bay Area.

    Tapping into the Bay Area ecosystem

    Gary believes that the networking and serendipity to Silicon Valley life can have a huge impact for a large corporation’s future.

    “The social aspect is very important,” Gary says, “there are a lot of interpersonal relationships that are bringing value.” Even while doing simple things at the Plug and Play campus like eating lunch, he has met a number of people who are either part of an interesting startup or received meaningful introductions. In just 3 months in the Bay Area, Gary is already involved in numerous industry consortiums and events, purely by the connections he has built by being present here.

    “We all help each other out and that's the beauty of the Plug and Play environment. We're all interconnected and we constantly share our ideas and best practices.”

    There is already a direct impact of networking on Colgate’s scouting efforts as Gary notes: “Probably about half of the startups I'm working with now are connections from connections. And that's been super valuable.” 

    The other benefit of being physically present in the Bay Area is the opportunity to engage with other corporates and learn how they manage their innovation strategy. 

    Plug and Play hosts many big brands – Pepsi, Tyson Foods, Coke and more – so there is endless opportunity to build a consortium on common problems, for example, how a group of consumer companies can work together to make packaging more sustainable and thus use less plastic.