Unilever's corporate mission – to add vitality to life – shows how clearly the business understands 21st century-consumers and their lives. But the spirit of this mission forms a thread that runs throughout our history.
Helping people get more out of life
In the 1890s, William Hesketh Lever, founder of Lever Bros, wrote down his ideas for Sunlight Soap – his revolutionary new product that helped popularise cleanliness and hygiene in Victorian England. It was 'to make cleanliness commonplace; to lessen work for women; to foster health and contribute to personal attractiveness, that life may be more enjoyable and rewarding for the people who use our products'.
This was long before the phrase 'Corporate Mission' had been invented, but these ideas have stayed at the heart of our business. Even if their language - and the notion of only women doing housework – has become outdated.
In a history that now crosses three centuries, Unilever's success has been influenced by the major events of the day – economic boom, depression, world wars, changing consumer lifestyles and advances in technology. And throughout we've created products that help people get more out of life – cutting the time spent on household chores, improving nutrition, enabling people to enjoy food and take care of their homes, their clothes and themselves.
Balancing profit with responsible corporate behaviour
In the late 19th century the businesses that would later become Unilever were among the most philanthropic of their time. They set up projects to improve the lot of their workers and created products with a positive social impact, making hygiene and personal care commonplace and improving nutrition through adding vitamins to foods that were already daily staples.
Today, Unilever still believes that success means acting with 'the highest standards of corporate behaviour towards our employees, consumers and the societies and world in which we live'. Over the years we've launched or participated in an ever-growing range of initiatives to source sustainable supplies of raw materials, protect environments, support local communities and much more.
Through this timeline you'll see how our brand portfolio has evolved. At the beginning of the 21st century, our Path to Growth strategy focused us on global high-potential brands and our Vitality mission is taking us into a new phase of development. More than ever, our brands are helping people 'feel good, look good and get more out of life' – a sentiment close to Lord Leverhulme's heart over a hundred years ago.
Although Unilever wasn't formed until 1930, the companies that joined forces to create the business we know today were already well established before the start of the 20th century.
Unilever's founding companies produced products made of oils and fats, principally soap and margarine. At the beginning of the 20th century their expansion nearly outstrips the supply of raw materials.
Tough economic conditions and the First World War make trading difficult for everyone, so many businesses form trade associations to protect their shared interests.
With businesses expanding fast, companies set up negotiations intending to stop others producing the same types of products. But instead they agree to merge - and so Unilever is created.
Unilever's first decade is no easy ride: it starts with the Great Depression and ends with the Second World War. But while the business rationalises operations, it also continues to diversify.
Unilever's operations around the world begin to fragment, but the business continues to expand further into the foods market and increase investment in research and development.
Business booms as new technology and the European Economic Community lead to rising standards of living in the West, while new markets open up in emerging economies around the globe.
As the world economy expands, so does Unilever and it sets about developing new products, entering new markets and running a highly ambitious acquisition programme.
Hard economic conditions and high inflation make the 70s a tough time for everyone, but things are particularly difficult in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector as the big retailers start to flex their muscles.
Unilever is now one of the world's biggest companies, but takes the decision to focus its portfolio, and rationalise its businesses to focus on core products and brands.
The business expands into Central and Eastern Europe and further sharpens its focus on fewer product categories, leading to the sale or withdrawal of two-thirds of its brands.
The 21st century
The decade starts with the launch of Path to Growth, a five-year strategic plan, and in 2004 further sharpens its focus on the needs of 21st century consumers with its Vitality mission.