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Drosos: Listen, Reconnect, Become Transparent

Virginia drosos, president of global Beauty Care at Procter & Gamble, has played a large part in the transformation of the brand most women in the Fifties knew as Oil of Olay.

VIRGINIA DROSOS, PRESIDENT OF GLOBAL Beauty Care at Procter & Gamble, has played a large part in the transformation of the brand most women in the Fifties knew as Oil of Olay. The brand, now called Olay, has catapulted into a franchise exceeding $2 billion in sales, made up mostly of antiaging, moisturizing and cleansing items. Drosos, who recently was a recipient of a Cosmetic Executive Women Achiever Award, opened her keynote speech with several startling facts.

According to a recent study, only 20 percent of shoppers trust the beauty counselor in the store, she said. And, only 10 percent of consumers trust advertising. Friends, it appears, as well as independent blogs and third-party ratings, are what help consumers make their purchasing decisions.

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To overcome this consumer fear, Drosos asked the beauty industry to meet three related challenges, things she thinks of as the new beauty mandates.

“First,” she suggested to the audience of beauty industry executives, “listen better to consumers and in new ways.”

In the age of YouTube, blogs and other user-generated content, consumers have a greater voice than ever, she said, a fact that translates into consumers who share their opinions widely. In turn, people tune in because they seek and sense the authenticity and collaboration. Designers and celebrities, she added, continue to influence consumer opinion. Drosos said she believes channeling these trends will help the beauty industry earn back the consumer’s trust.

“Rather than fight this, I believe we need to channel it, to embrace consumers’ diverse opinions and creativity and learn from listening. Because, listening to our consumers, really listening and understanding them, is essential to earning their trust and to creating the new products and imagery and benefits that they will value.”

For starters, one-way research, questionnaires and focus groups behind mirrors need to be replaced with dialogue. At P&G, she said, virtually all research is done in context, in the home, in-store and at a woman’s vanity.

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The second mandate she shared with the audience is how to reconnect beauty with meaning. So how should the industry facilitate this?

“Beauty is ultimately about so much more than a product, more than a glamorous, new shade of lipstick, more than a beautiful package, even more than the greatest innovations of technology that we can bring. It’s about something much more profound. It’s about how we tap into an innate and sometimes elusive well of emotion that empowers women to engage the world with confidence. And when our products lack a deeper emotional resonance, our relationship with women suffers. That’s why as an industry, we need to deliver not just substantive, innovative new products, which transform women’s appearance but also drive substantive, engaging dialogue, which improves lives,” said Drosos.

She named P&G’s Pantene Beautiful Lengths as an example, a charity that encourages women to donate their healthy-looking, non-color treated hair to create free wigs for women who have lost their hair due to cancer treatments. Drosos looked outside of P&G, as well, and pointed to Avon’s Walk for Breast Cancer. “Avon has done just a tremendous job raising awareness and raising money to help save lives.”

The industry’s third imperative, Drosos said, is to increase transparency, especially as it relates to the environment and employees. While the modern industry was built on the salon experience and inspired by the glamour of the elite, today access to information and consumer expectations are increasingly democratic, she said. As a consequence, Drosos said, many consumers want the products that they buy to reflect greener values and their greater ideals.

A recent study by the ARS Company found that 24 percent of women are what they would deem as hard-core health sustainability beauty advocates. And, more than two-thirds of women who viewed commercials that had concrete solutions to today’s environmental or cause-related programs found the advertising more appealing.

“I believe that what we’re seeing is that beauty is becoming more about engagement and aspiration, rather than the historic place of escape and aspiration….As an industry, we can help women do this in a major way by focusing on transparency as it relates to our products, claims and the environment. I don’t believe that this recent growing emphasis on sustainable, environmentally friendly products or ingredients or processes is at all a passing trend. On the contrary, it’s a tectonic shift that’s impacting every industry.”

Drosos cited Patagonia, the apparel retailer, which gives back 1 percent of its sales to a network of environmental groups. She also pointed to the new Web site from the Personal Care Products Council, which details 1,500 commonly used ingredients in beauty products and provides consumers with test results and links to find regulatory opinions, government and private third-party Web sites for further information.

“Going green is new and complex, however, especially in our business. What products qualify as organic? Who should set these standards? Are the factors where we produce our products really as energy-efficient as they can be? How much waste do we create? These questions matter, especially to our industry, because a lot of women are uncomfortable with a fundamental inconsistency. They are asking, am I willing to use products that make me more beautiful, but make the world that I live in uglier? And in the age of information, the answer is increasingly ‘no.’ We shouldn’t force them to make that choice,” said Drosos.

But providing this kind of transparency will, she predicted, drive engagement within the industry as well. “It’s no coincidence that most of the most successful and admired companies have the most engaged employees, people who trust each other and feel good about their company as a corporate citizen.”

Recognizing the possible risk of degrading beauty’s traditional allure if the mandates are met, Drosos said she believed these efforts would endow the industry with greater context and meaning, helping it to regain the trust and loyalty that she believes have been slipping away.

“I’m simply proposing that we, together, collectively continue adding depth to aspiration. Yes, women seek beauty and they always will, but ultimately, we also seek engagement and purpose. And, as an industry, our overarching challenge is to deliver all of that beautifully.”

Drosos concluded her speech with a brief story.

She shared that when she travels around the world, she makes it a point to meet with women in their homes, to understand their aspirations, their beauty rituals and their relationship with P&G’s products. Earlier this year, when she was in the home of a woman in South Korea, Drosos noticed the stark contrast between the woman’s high-tech appliances and the feminine oasis that was her vanity. Beautiful perfume bottles, creams and advanced skin treatments helped her maintain her fair, translucent skin, and her confidence, Drosos said. About $1,000 worth of P&G’s SK-II products were there, too.

Also this year, she traveled several hours over dusty, bumpy roads in an SUV to a small village outside of Cairo. In this village, there were children running beside the SUV, many of them barefoot, smiling and laughing and waving. There, Drosos met a woman who had just moved to the village as part of an arranged marriage. New to the town, she was covered head-to-foot in traditional clothing, except for her face. The woman told Drosos about her life, how she was settling and her beauty regimen. She had one product she prized above all others that she kept it in a special box in her medicine cabinet. It was an 18-cent bar of Camay soap.

The two stories show how beauty can take many forms, said Drosos, but that what the two women have in common with women everywhere is they share a universal need to feel beautiful in a world that’s under increasing stress.

“If we in this industry can do our part to simultaneously nurture both beauty and our beautiful world, we will reestablish the connection between beauty and meaning and show our character. And if simultaneously we can help women to look good and do good, we will engage consumers and endow our brands with beautiful purpose and our businesses will thrive.

“If we can do all that and leave behind a legacy that we’re proud of, we will create a world that’s just a little bit more beautiful now and for generations to come.”