Before a recent photo shoot, Gina Boswell grabbed a bottle of Nexxus Frizz Defy Hair Spray from her desk, casually spritzing it into her dark, shoulder length hair. Minutes before, she had deftly defined Unilever’s beauty strategy and its integration of the Alberto Culver personal care portfolio, which, incidentally, includes the Nexxus brand. Boswell’s dexterity at extolling product virtues one moment and talking big-picture strategy the next make her a triple threat in beauty industry terms: a strategy, marketing and finance guru rolled into one. Boswell, who joined Unilever as executive vice president of personal care through its acquisition of Alberto Culver in May, currently oversees a $4.5 billion personal care business with a portfolio of brands such as Dove, Axe, Vaseline, Pond’s, Nexxus, VO5, TRESemmé, St. Ives, Noxzema and Simple skin care, which was recently introduced into the U.S. market.
This story first appeared in the March 9, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
How do you see the beauty industry evolving?
Even over the most difficult years, the beauty business has continued to grow. People want to feel good about themselves and beauty products are an accessible way of doing that. Those sort of small indulgences are what has kept us recession- resilient. There have been some very interesting developments in terms of new-to-the-world type product categories. From a portfolio standpoint, we are poised to grow from both sides—you’ve got the legacy Unilever brands, which are incredibly successful in their own right: Dove, Suave, Vaseline and Ponds, and the Alberto Culver brands of TRESemmé, Nexxus, St. Ives and Simple, a new launch. We’ve got a real breadth of brands across categories and price points.
What opportunities excite you the most?
One of the things that’s really exciting is how we are creating ways to help our consumers reduce their environmental footprint once they take a product home with them. We did an amazing partnership with Wal-Mart together with Recyclebank called Turn Off the Tap. You challenge yourself to take a four-minute shower. For me, four minutes is an eternity because I’ve got to get out and get moving. For my 16-year-old daughter, it is a challenge because she’s got the whole ritual that happens in the shower. But the whole point of a sustainable living plan is to recognize that our everyday behavior consumes quite a bit of the world’s precious resources. We measure the environmental impact from the beginning to the end of a product life cycle.
What does the industry need to pay attention to in the year ahead?
There are a few trends that are attracting a lot of attention and business in North America. The first is salon results at home, with affordable, do-it-yourself treatments. Now, there’s the recent trend of women desiring smooth, sleek and manageable hair, but it’s not financially accessible to most women. Our Suave Professionals brand is launching a new innovation with Suave Professionals Keratin Infusion System. It’s an at-home, quality solution at an affordable price. Dove has had great success in crafting a beauty message based on individuality.
What messages are particularly resonant with women today and why?
Dove has a special place in consumers’ hearts. That has to do with the underpinnings of our brand, the Campaign for Real Beauty, which spawned a fantastic initiative called the Dove Self-Esteem Fund. This was about the way women and young girls perceive and embrace beauty. A key purpose of Dove is to make sure we are speaking to her in her own terms and [understand] what real beauty means to her, and sometimes this is not in line with what they see in popular culture. Individuality is very resonant with women. This is important on a personal level: I have two young girls, 13 and 16. I know the images that they are bombarded with and that their perceptions are quite formative at this age. If we can encourage women to raise their self-esteem and build a positive relationship with beauty, it will go a long way in terms of their future success.
What is the strategy behind Simple’s launch into the U.S.?
Products that address sensitive skin exist, but there hasn’t been any brand that is fully dedicated to it and this is where Simple plays. Simple is the number-one facial skin care brand in the U.K. in units. The positioning of the brand is: no perfumes, no colors, no harsh irritants. We launched it in the U.S. in January. If you have sensitive skin—and 58 percent of people perceive they do—you look for ingredients that may irritate it. The positioning that you’ll see in the very disruptive TV and print ads starts with a beautiful white rose and a voice-over that says, “With something as pure and as beautiful as this, would you add artificial chemicals, dyes, perfumes…” And you have this visual of pink liquid dousing this beautiful flower. And then the voice says, “Neither would we.”
For the launch, the social media campaign preceded any traditional PR or paid advertising, and we set out on a listening program which determined three key learnings. The first was that sensitive skin care conversation is massive—it’s about 500,000 mentions per month; second, there is very little brand share of voice in this conversation because this consumer is used to cherry picking what works, and third, these consumers look to bloggers for influence. With that in mind, we built a network of blogger ambassadors who will help consumers navigate the brand and some of the product benefits. We are also partnering with Lauren Luke, and we have a pretty aggressive conversation happening on Twitter as well.
How can the mass market shopping experience be improved?
Customer service is absolutely essential. You know when you walk into a mass retailer the experiences you want to have. The shopping experience can be improved through these connection points. The retailers that do it extremely well have a brand experience that is consistent on site and in store, where they make it easy for the consumer to find the product she needs and wants and engage her in an environment where she feels good about the purchase. To me, it’s creating those connections between what happens in the store, online and then building online communities together and creating brand engagement throughout.
You have worked at several mega beauty companies—Alberto Culver, Avon and Estée Lauder. What are some key lessons you’ve learned along the way?
First, that the intensity of the competition within the beauty industry is at unprecedented levels. It’s a reminder that companies have to grow and innovate within a mature market. Product innovation has been and always will be the lifeblood of this business. Lesson number two is that consumer focus is critical. Understanding their behavior is very important—mining those insights and creating product to meet them is how you win the hearts and minds of consumers. Avon, Alberto Culver and Lauder are all very different channels of distribution, but the consumer has probably been cross-shopping for a long time. Brand experience is key. If you don’t have a differentiated brand, it will get lost in a sea of competition. The consistency of a brand is really paramount. A lot of people struggle with that. The final lesson would be that it’s important to embrace the company’s culture. One thing I’ve done at every company is understand its experience end to end. At Lauder, I worked behind the Clinique counter; at Avon, I was an Avon lady. I like to engage at that experiential level. It’s important to engage in whatever your company’s selling model is to understand all aspects of it.
You joined Unilever after it acquired Alberto Culver. What advice do you have on successfully integrating an acquisition?
At Unilever, the culture is that we acquire brands with love. As the new business is integrated, it’s important to place continued dedication to the growth of the new business but at the same time capture the synergies quickly. You want to leverage the scale and the infrastructure, but not at the risk of losing the secret sauce that made the brand successful. It’s a fine line of integrating what is necessary but having respect and admiration for what had been built before, not just for the brands we bought but for the brands we have.
How would you describe your management style?
Collaborative and inclusive. I’m decisive and I have a bias for speed. I’m continuously learning. I process and listen, but at a certain juncture my style is “Let’s go.” That was fostered at Alberto Culver, because we were a nimble, smaller company and we had speed as our currency. At Unilever, we also use speed as currency.
How has your management style evolved?
It’s been a very natural evolution. I get very excited about intellectual things and making a link with strategy. My three-legged stool from a skill-set point of view is strategy, marketing and finance. I was a great listener in the beginning. I was a sponge. As I started managing people, I realized you want to get the best people around you and you definitely want people smarter than you. And then empower them to be their absolute best and make sure their decision making happens at the right level. I love it when teams are greater than the sum of their parts.
What’s the toughest business decision you’ve had to make?
Generally, the toughest decisions have had to do with course correction when things don’t go according to plan, which happens from time to time. When you operate with as much passion and conviction as I have, it’s not always easy to step back and be objective about what’s working and what’s not because you’ve already fallen in love with either the product or the brand or the people. The toughest decisions have had to do with allowing myself to look objectively at the situation. Why that is important is because when you think you’re winning, you want to win big, but if it looks like you’re going to fail, you should fail fast and inexpensively.
What do you do to relax?
I have two teenage girls, so relaxation is aspirational. I’m commuting from Chicago to New York, so my relaxation is when I go back home and spend time with my family. I’m also a real app person. There’s nothing more relaxing to me than some airplane time and playing Words With Friends. I’m obsessed. I think it has to do with the fact that I actually think it counts as QT with neglected friends. But it stimulates the brain and that’s relaxing to me. Right now, I have 12 games going.
After attending Yale School of Management, Gina Boswell began her career working as a strategy consultant to the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. In 1993, she began working for Lauder, where she was one of a four-person team that helped take the company public. She rose to the rank of vice president of business development as Lauder acquired brands like Bobbi Brown and MAC Cosmetics. In 1999, Boswell took a brief detour from beauty, working for Ford Motor Company for four years. In 2003 she returned, landing at Avon Products Inc., where she was ultimately promoted to chief operating officer of Avon North America. Boswell joined Unilever in May through its acquisition of Alberto Culver, where as president of global brands she oversaw VO5, TRESemmé, Nexxus, St. Ives and Noxzema. Now, as executive vice president of personal care of North America at Unilever, Boswell oversees a $4.5 billion brand portfolio.