Unilever was created in 1930 by the amalgamation of the operations of British soapmaker Lever Brothers and Dutch margarine producer Margarine Unie, a logical merger as palm oil was a major raw material for both margarines and soaps and could be imported more efficiently in larger quantities.
In the 1930s the business of Unilever grew and new ventures were launched in Latin America. In 1972 Unilever purchased A&W Restaurants' Canadian division but sold its shares through a management buyout to former A&W Food Services of Canada CEO Jeffrey Mooney in July 1995. By 1980 soap and edible fats contributed just 40% of profits, compared with an original 90%. In 1984 the company bought the brand Brooke Bond.
In 1987 Unilever strengthened its position in the world skin care market by acquiring Chesebrough-Ponds, the maker of Ragú, Pond's, Aqua-Net, Cutex Nail Polish, and Vaseline. In 1989 Unilever bought Calvin Klein Cosmetics, Fabergé, and Elizabeth Arden, but the latter was later sold to FFI Fragrances.
In 1996 Unilever purchased Helene Curtis Industries, giving the company "a powerful new presence in the United States shampoo and deodorant market". The purchase brought Unilever the Suave and Finesse hair-care product brands and Degree deodorant brand.
In 2000 the company absorbed the American business Best Foods, strengthening its presence in North America and extending its portfolio of foods brands. In April 2000 it bought both Ben & Jerry's and Slim Fast.
The company is fully multinational with operating companies and factories on every continent (except Antarctica) and research laboratories at Colworth and Port Sunlight in England; Vlaardingen in the Netherlands; Trumbull, Connecticut, and Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey in the United States; Bangalore in India (see also Hindustan Unilever Limited); Pakistan; and Shanghai in China.
The US division continued to carry the Lever Brothers name until the 1990s, when it adopted the parent company's moniker. The American unit now has headquarters in New Jersey, and no longer maintains a presence at Lever House, the iconic skyscraper on Park Avenue in New York City.
The company promotes sustainability and started a sustainable agriculture programme in 1998. In May 2007 it became the first tea company to commit to sourcing all its tea in a sustainable manner , employing the Rainforest Alliance, an international environmental NGO, to certify its tea estates in East Africa, as well as third-party suppliers in Africa and other parts of the world. It declared its aim to have all Lipton Yellow Label and PG Tips tea bags sold in Western Europe certified by 2010, followed by all Lipton tea bags globally by 2015.
Covalence, an ethical reputation ranking agency, placed Unilever at the top of its ranking based on positive versus negative news coverage for 2007.
In 2008 Unilever was honoured at the 59th Annual Technology & Engineering Emmy Awards for "Outstanding Achievement in Advanced Media Technology for Creation and Distribution of Interactive Commercial Advertising Delivered Through Digital Set Top Boxes" for its program Axe: Boost Your ESP.
Unilever owns more than 400 brands as a result of acquisitions, however, the company focuses on what are called the "billion-dollar brands", 13 brands which each achieve annual sales in excess of €1 billion. Unilever's top 25 brands account for more than 70% of sales. The brands fall almost entirely into two categories: Food and Beverages, and Home and Personal Care.
Unilever is the world's biggest ice cream manufacturer, with an annual turnover of €5 billion. Except for Popsicle, Klondike, Ocean Spray ice cream, Slim Fast ice cream, Breyers, Starbucks and Ben & Jerry's, all of its ice cream business is done under the "Heartbrand" brand umbrella, so called because of its heart-shaped logo. Unilever currently operates eleven ice cream factories in Europe; the biggest include factories at Heppenheim in Germany, Caivano in Italy, St. Dizier in France and Gloucester in the United Kingdom.
The Heartbrand was launched in 1999 as an effort to increase international brand awareness and promote cross-border synergies in manufacturing and marketing. It is present in more than 40 countries. Although the logo is common worldwide, each country retained the local brand so as to keep the familiarity built over the years, one notable exception being Hungary where the previous Eskimo brand was replaced with Algida in 2003.
In 2005, Glidat Strauss received special permission from Unilever to export their brand of ice cream to the United States because of the strict kosher certification the products in Israel have. Under terms of the agreement, Strauss ice cream and krembo may be sold only in kosher supermarkets and import shops. It is distributed in North America by Dairy Delight, a subsidiary of Norman's Dairy.
Prior to the heart logo, each country could choose its own logo, although the most common one consisted of a blue circle with the local brand's name over a background of red and white stripes; second most common old logo, used by Wall's in the UK and other countries, was a yellow logo with Wall's in blue text.
Unilever generally manufactures the same ice-cream with the same names, with rare occasions of regional availability, under different brands. Some of these ice-creams include Carte D'Or, Cornetto, Magnum, Solero and Viennetta.