Skip to content

Meet the leader: Arun Neelakantan


As part of our series of interviews with HUL leaders, our Chief Digital Officer, Arun Neelakantan, talks about HUL’s digital transformation journey over the years, the growth it has created for the company, and the three key aspects essential to driving digital transformation.

Arun Neelakantan, Chief Digital Officer, HUL

Arun Neelakantan was appointed the Chief Digital Officer in January 2024. An alumnus of the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad, he joined HUL in 2006 and has held various roles in Customer Development and Marketing across General Trade, Modern Trade, Customer Marketing and Brands.

Read on to learn about how his journey with us unfolds.

  1. Can you tell us about HUL’s digital transformation journey in the last few years?

    HUL started on the digital transformation journey several years back. We first embarked on digital experimentation with Livewire, which addressed a fundamental problem of providing real-time, joined-up, granular data to enable better decision-making. Over the years, we consolidated the experiments under the ‘Re-imagine HUL’ umbrella and set up the ‘HUL Digital Council’ that has driven the transformation agenda across the business.

    Re-imagine HUL anchors on a connected ecosystem across consumers, customers and operations enabled by the Data / Technology / Analytics at its core. It promotes the development of modular inter-connected capabilities that allow us to create a frictionless solution for superior experience while improving agility and responsiveness across the business.

  2. How did you identify and tap the growth opportunities to develop new digital capabilities for HUL and make it a future-fit intelligent enterprise?

    The rapid changes in the external landscape, the advent of digital mediums, and data processing capabilities have dramatically changed consumers, customers, and even our employee behaviour. For example, while we have standardised systemised data sets for performance evaluation (Nielsen, Mindshare, Kantar), consumer digital activity remained a black box. To unpeel this, we scanned the external ecosystem for potential solutions and closely partnered with an emerging startup to develop the right data systems. We can now measure our digital performance across brand communication seen on social and digital commerce and compare against competitive benchmarks.

  3. Can you take us through the ‘Re-Imagine HUL’ model and its impacts realised now and in the future?

    Through digital transformation, we have materially transformed the entire value chain for the organisation. So far, we have over 10 D2C platforms, 250+ SKUs produced from our six nano factories, cover 1.3 Mn+ stores through Shikhar (HUL’s flagship in-house e-business to business platform), 100% of our customer operations on the cloud, resulting in digital demand capture for the organisation at over 30%. We have over 30 petabytes of data processed annually in our systems. This has resulted in improved brand preference and competitive gains in e-commerce while generating bottomline savings as well.

  4. Can you tell us more about your role in HUL’s digital transformation?

    As the Chief Digital Officer, I need to understand the business in-depth to identify the business opportunities and challenges, appreciate and anticipate the shifting consumer & customer behaviour and understand the technological capabilities available. The sweet spot of intersection is what provides the opportunity for long-term value creation. Simply put, I need to provide the balance between experimentation and long-term value creation or, in other words, between sanity and insanity.

  5. Have collaborations and partnerships played a role in realising HUL’s vision of digital transformation?

    Digital transformation is ubiquitous, and rapid advances are being made in the industry daily. Our approach towards partnerships has also shifted to keep pace with the rapidity of change. While we continue to work with large partners (across digital, creative, media, etc), we continuously scan the external ecosystem to identify specialist solution providers. For example, in our technology stack, while we have five core partners, we have over 80 capabilities that specialist players provide, and we are continuously expanding our pool to bridge emerging business opportunities.

  6. Since joining HUL in 2006, can you share any pivotal moments or lessons learned through your career?

    While my experiences in HUL have taught me various things, the one aspect that stands out is caring for people. Take care of your people, and they will take care of your business. In one of my earlier roles as a general manager, due to severe floods, a part of the country was significantly impacted. What stood out was the speed with which we mobilised support for the impacted and not just for Unilever employees.

    We extended support to our outer core employees, their families, and the society at large. I traversed the state from one end to the other – the state head and I landed Monday morning and drove across the state through the week, spending time with everyone. This simple gesture of showing compassion went a long way towards enhancing our reputation, which people of the state still recall.

  7. How have your initial roles in Customer Development and Marketing shaped your journey as a pioneer of digital transformation at HUL?

    Early in my career at Unilever, an experienced Unileverite said in jest that if you set your mind to it, water can flow uphill here. And that is what I have been privileged to have been a part of over the years in the organisation.

    From creating amongst the 1st Indian Facebook pages in the 2000s to redefining the holy grails of distributor operations in Customer Development, to facing several failures (before eventually succeeding) in creating last-mile delivery solutions, my experience has taught me three critical aspects that help in driving digital transformation. Number 1) If what you are doing doesn’t make you uncomfortable, you are not doing it right. 2) Focus on your people first and 3) Speed of thought and action.

  8. What advice would you give to aspiring leaders looking to drive digital transformation within their organisations, based on your experiences at HUL?

    To drive digital transformation, one needs to wear many hats. A cheerleader, evangelist, provocateur, campaigner, friend, futurist, and almost all of it in the same day. As a leader driving digital transformation, I would keep three things in mind – people, process, and capabilities- in that order. Unfortunately, digital transformation often focuses only on capabilities. However, even the best solutions don’t create the requisite impact if you don’t have the right people and processes in place.

    Identifying the right people is critical, and in driving this agenda, you need to look beyond your immediate team to the right people who can create and drive change in their parts of the business. Finally, don’t forget the process. Landing digital transformation will require us to change the way we have worked in the past. Driving change management in your teams and the organisation will be imperative to the success of the transformation agenda.

Back to top