I read recently in the Economic Times that Unilever finds innovations that have marked its growth in India, are now more relevant than ever, in recession hit parts of the world such as Europe.

As the Unilever CEO, Paul Polman, has rightly mentioned, “Learnings” from India such as lower price points for products in smaller packages or sachets, is gaining acceptance in the European market, poverty has returned as the local economies continue to reel under recession.”

It is transferability of such learnings that makes knowledge of international business practices so valuable. I remember my time in Toyota where we applied our learnings from implementation of kaizen principles for just-in-time (JIT) logistics across countries. Thus, Oman could benefit from learnings from Poland, and in turn teach a lesson (or two) to Australia and South Africa.

According to the newspaper, Paulman, also highlighted the success of the affordable water purifying product, Pureit.The product entirely developed in India, is now being sold by Unilever in at least 15 other countries, where according to him, it has become a popular brand. “

This reminded me of the concept of “reverse innovation” that was popularized by GE. Why is it called reverse? Previously, innovation occurred in developed markets, and products were sold across the globe. However, those markets are now saturated, or even in decline as Unilever is discovering. Undiscovered markets lie in populous emerging markets like, China, India and Indonesia. Thus, there is profit to be made by innovating for these markets. And, what sells here can also be sold in the fast-becoming-poor markets of the developed world. Learning frugal engineering has become so important that Carlos Ghosn of Nissan Renault invested USD 1 billion for starting a greenfield factory in India.

I suspect, eventually, as this becomes the mainstream model, the “reverse” will then be dropped from the nomenclature.

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