Dave Lewis Talks Catalysts for Change at Unilever

The company always maintains its core DNA of building business based on “care” and “brands with a purpose.”

PALM BEACH, Fla. — Unilever, which jumped a notch to become the world’s number-two beauty player for the first time in last year’s WWD Beauty Inc Top 100 ranking, has had numerous catalysts for change, according to Dave Lewis, president of the company’s personal-care division.

This story first appeared in the May 23, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

While always maintaining Unilever’s core DNA of building business based on “care” and “brands with a purpose,” it in September 2011 created a personal-care division. The branch combined the oral-care, skin-care, skin-cleansing, hair-care and deodorant categories.

“It was a real broadening of our expertise; it unlocked some potential and it has driven the growth,” he said. “It also allowed us to build out a much broader vision of our business.”

Whereas 125-year-old Unilever had formerly focused on individual body parts, it took a holistic approach.

“Actually looking at the whole person, putting people first was the biggest single catalyst and change agent within our personal-care business,” he said. “So just looking at the problem through a different perspective has created a huge, huge amount of innovation and an opportunity in our business.”

A second metamorphosis driver for Unilever has been concentrating more on premium personal care.

“Now that’s a huge opportunity for us, and that’s driven quite a lot of growth,” said Lewis.

He said Unilever redefined its concept of care, that the shift has been from a nurturing, sort of paternalistic care toward personal care involving making people feel and look beautiful and sexy.

“That metamorphosis has driven a huge amount of change inside our business,” said Lewis.

The first category tackled was hair, starting with Unilever’s 2010 purchase of Tigi.

“It’s become a hothouse of incubation and really is on-trend sexy and fashionable,” he said.

In skin, brands such as Ioma have also helped alter Unilever’s perspective.

The company’s venture fund, which consists of 250 million pounds in the U.K. and $250 million in the U.S., allows Unilever “to experiment widely,” said Lewis, who additionally noted a redirection of the firm’s research and development.

“I’m not going to tell you that it’s easy,” said Lewis, of the company’s transformation. “But we have some confidence because we’ll do what we’ve always done: We’ll put people first.”