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  • Writer's pictureRich Honiball

Today in Brand History: Unilever

Unilever HQ
Unilever Headquarters (photo credit:

On September 2nd, 1929, Unilever was formed through a merger of Margarine Union and Lever Brothers, marking the beginning of a global conglomerate that would shape the consumer goods industry for decades to come. The founding of Unilever was a strategic move initially aimed to negotiate an arrangement to keep out of each other's principal interests of soap and margarine production, but ultimately brought together two established companies with complementary strengths, creating a powerhouse in the world of consumer products.

Viking Margarine / Unilever
Viking Margarine (photo credit: Unilever Archives)

Founding Companies and Formation of Unilever: The story of Unilever begins with two distinct companies: Margarine Union and Lever Brothers. Margarine Union, founded by Anton Jurgens in the Netherlands in 1871, focused on producing margarine as a butter substitute. Lever Brothers, on the other hand, was established by William Hesketh Lever in the United Kingdom in 1885. Lever Brothers initially gained prominence for its innovative approach to soap manufacturing, producing high-quality soap bars using a process that involved mixing vegetable oils with sodium hydroxide. Lever's vision was to provide affordable and hygienic soap to the masses, addressing a pressing public health concern at the time.

The merger of Margarine Union and Lever Brothers was driven by a shared desire to expand their global reach and diversify their product offerings. The two companies recognized that their strengths could be combined to create a more robust and resilient entity in the rapidly evolving consumer goods market. On September 2nd, 1929, Unilever was officially formed, with the goal of leveraging the strengths of both founding companies to drive innovation, improve efficiency, and deliver value to consumers worldwide.

Sunlight Soap / Unilever
Sunlight Soap / Unilever (photo credit: Cascade Innovation)

William Hesketh Lever and Anton Jurgens: William Hesketh Lever, the founder of Lever Brothers, played a pivotal role in shaping Unilever's early years. Lever was a visionary entrepreneur who believed in the power of advertising and branding to connect with consumers. He introduced the concept of branded soap and leveraged the growing popularity of advertising to promote Sunlight soap, a product that became synonymous with cleanliness and hygiene. Lever's commitment to social responsibility was also notable, as he believed in providing fair wages and improved working conditions for his employees.

Anton Jurgens, the founder of Margarine Union, brought his expertise in margarine production to the merger. His company had successfully developed a process to create margarine from vegetable oils, offering an affordable and accessible alternative to butter. Jurgens' commitment to quality and innovation aligned with Lever's values, making the merger a logical step towards creating a stronger consumer goods conglomerate.

Dreft Detergent
Dreft Detergent (Unilever Archives)

Key Milestones and Innovations: The formation of Unilever marked the beginning of a series of significant milestones and innovations. The company's diverse product portfolio expanded beyond soap and margarine to include a wide range of consumer goods such as food products, cleaning agents, and personal care items. Unilever's commitment to research and development led to the introduction of iconic brands that have become household names around the world.

Unilever's innovative spirit was evident in its continuous efforts to improve products and meet changing consumer preferences. The company introduced the first packaged laundry detergent, "Dreft," in the 1930s, revolutionizing the way households cleaned their clothes. Unilever's dedication to sustainability and environmental responsibility was demonstrated through its launch of eco-friendly products and initiatives aimed at reducing the environmental impact of its operations.

Decades later, Unilever went from the traditional position of women in ads to launching Unilever's Dove brand's "Campaign for Real Beauty" a pioneer in promoting body positivity and self-esteem. The "Campaign for Real Beauty" challenged traditional beauty standards and encouraged women to embrace their natural appearance. This groundbreaking initiative not only transformed the beauty industry's narrative but also highlighted Unilever's commitment to social impact.

Dove's Real Beauty Campaign
Dove's Real Beauty Campaign (photo credit:

Innovations and Acquisitions: Unilever's dedication to innovation has led to the introduction of products that have shaped consumer behavior. The launch of "Axe" (known as "Lynx" in some markets) in the 1980s marked a significant departure from traditional men's grooming products. The brand's distinctive marketing campaigns and fragrances resonated with young consumers, making "Axe" a global success story.

Unilever's commitment to diversification and expansion also led to strategic acquisitions. The acquisition of Ben & Jerry's in 2000 showcased Unilever's approach to nurturing and preserving the unique identity of acquired brands while leveraging its global distribution network.

Axe Campaign
Axe Campaign (photo credit:

Global Reach and Social Responsibility: Unilever's global presence grew rapidly, with the company expanding its operations to multiple countries and continents. Through strategic acquisitions and partnerships, Unilever gained access to new markets and diversified its product offerings. The company's commitment to providing affordable and high-quality consumer goods resonated with consumers from various cultural backgrounds, contributing to its success on a global scale.

Did You Know:

Coined Name from "Universal" and "Lever": Unilever's name is a clever combination of the words "universal" and "lever," signifying the company's global reach and leveraged resources. The name was chosen to reflect Unilever's ambition to serve consumers across the world with a wide range of products.Unilever's iconic "Dove" soap was launched in the 1950s with a promise of moisturizing benefits, setting a new standard in skincare.

Early Beginnings in Soap Manufacturing: While Unilever is known for its diverse range of consumer products, its origins trace back to soap manufacturing. The merger between Margarine Union and Lever Brothers in 1929 brought together two companies with expertise in margarine and soap production, respectively. This diverse background laid the foundation for Unilever's expansion into various consumer goods categories. Unilever's research contributed to the development of sunscreens, helping to protect skin from harmful UV rays.

Sunlight Dishwashing Liquid: Unilever's "Sunlight" brand was one of the first to introduce dishwashing liquid to the market, revolutionizing how households clean their dishes. This innovation eliminated the need for bar soap and offered a more efficient and convenient way to wash dishes.

Innovations in Sustainable Packaging: Unilever has been a pioneer in experimenting with sustainable packaging solutions. One such innovation is the "compressed deodorant" technology introduced by the "Sure" brand. This packaging innovation reduces the size of the deodorant cans while maintaining the same amount of product, resulting in less waste and a smaller carbon footprint during transportation.

Sustainable Palm Oil Sourcing: Unilever has been a driving force behind the sustainable sourcing of palm oil, working to combat deforestation and protect biodiversity. The company's commitment to using responsibly sourced palm oil has influenced industry standards and encouraged transparency in the supply chain.

Pioneering Frozen Foods: Unilever's reach extends beyond traditional consumer goods, as the company played a role in pioneering frozen food technology. In the 1930s, Unilever introduced the "Birds Eye" brand in the United Kingdom, collaborating with Clarence Birdseye to bring frozen vegetables and later frozen meals to households, revolutionizing the way people consumed food.The company's commitment to sustainable palm oil sourcing has led to positive changes in the palm oil industry and reduced deforestation.


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