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P&G Beauty’s Alex Keith Talks Grace Under Fire

The executive shared how she drove engagement — both within the company and with consumers — during the pandemic.

Rather than sending out sizzle reels, Alex Keith, chief executive officer, P&G Beauty, sent out real reels to her employees during the coronavirus pandemic. Some were even filmed from a makeshift office in her laundry room at home.

“It was really about trying to have a personal connection with people and have the people of P&G Beauty around the world seeing what we were all going through, that it was impacting me just like it was impacting all of them,” Keith said in a discussion with Jenny B. Fine, executive editor, beauty, at WWD. “I got so much positive feedback from people. It brought a human face to me that otherwise people wouldn’t have seen. I think that was the silver lining.”

She noted a number of trends in place pre-pandemic accelerated during COVID-19, including the consumers’ desire for more sustainable products, a focus on the impact industries have on planet earth and the blending of wellbeing and beauty.

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“People are doing more things for themselves; the DIY movement happened because salons were closed, and those types of things,” Keith said. “They found surprise and delight in some of the products that they tried, and that’s accelerating parts of the market.

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“While professional services are coming back, we’ll continue to see incremental usage occasions at home from the habits people developed while the pandemic is on,” she said.

During 2020, P&G Beauty was the only top-five beauty manufacturer to post a sales increase. Keith credits that to the group’s employees.

“Our people are incredibly committed, incredibly resilient and really focused on serving our consumer and the categories,” she said, adding P&G Beauty competes in daily-use categories such as hair care, skin care and personal care, which have remained key throughout the pandemic.

Rather than a dramatic shift in strategy, P&G has pivoted to better serve the ‘new normal,’ for instance, in helping consumers think about how it’s possible to attain some services inside their home that were once procured outside.

“We remained committed to supporting our brands and having our brands support the people and communities where our consumers live and work,” Keith said. Media backing was maintained, but in many instances, the message shifted to celebrate people and resilience.

The home-shot clips gave Keith an aha moment. “I realized through those videos, when I would send them out and get response from people, that to many I’m not necessarily a person — I’m a role,” she said. “There was just this huge insight that there’s an opportunity for me to be a human, to share that I have many of the same challenges in life that other people have. Hopefully, as we return to normalcy, people will remember those moments, and I can continue to feel like it’s OK to share them.”

The goal for P&G Beauty is to come out of the pandemic stronger than it was before. Keith outlined a few elements already at play to reach this goal: The teams are closer than ever, they’ve learned many skills, and the group is implementing winning strategies. The fundamentals are in place, so up next is doubling down on the group’s categories.

“There’s so much opportunity in skin care, hair care and personal care,” she said. “There are always new and interesting consumer needs to be met, especially with much more diverse audiences demanding much more diverse experiences. I would like to see us accelerate our growth from here.”

Keith noted consumers are engaging in information, and that’s where the company’s Responsible Beauty platform, launched last year, comes in. “We’re very focused on transparency and sustainability,” she said.

The new generation of consumer seeks information in many credible places. “It’s an entire ecosystem of: How do we reach them with the content they think is relevant and credible, and do that with a brand that they would be proud to associate themselves with — with products that are made from ingredients they understand, think are interesting and will work for them?” Keith said.

“It really comes down to having to be incredibly agile, because this generation changes very, very fast,” she continued. “So the ecosystems around them can change extremely quickly.”

Responsible Beauty platform encompasses a 360-degree approach to sustainability, equity and inclusivity, environmental impact, wellbeing and more.

Keith said it’s become a rallying cry for each person at P&G Beauty. “Sometimes as a leader you put out a strategy or plan and you have to repeat yourself to really get it to permeate the organization,” she said. “Responsible Beauty has not been that. P&G employees come to work every day thinking about Responsible Beauty, talking about it, asking me about it and demanding that we make progress.”

Keith said in year one, tremendous progress has been achieved, and some of it was unplanned. “It’s because of the groundswell of engagement from our employees that we’re really seeing some of this progress come to light faster than we expected,” she said.

For instance, all of P&G Beauty’s manufacturing sites will have 100 percent renewable energy by the end of 2022, which is eight years ahead of plan.

In Europe, the company launched what’s billed to be the first refillable bottles for hair care — aluminium bottles and pouch refills at scale. “That project came to life within a year,” Keith said. “These are the kind of things that only happen when there’s just true ground-level motivation.”

Incubated brands play a role in territories where P&G Beauty’s core brands don’t authentically stretch. Those have included direct-to-consumer brands, where it’s possible to really learn about which consumers are most interested in the proposition.

“Incubation, to me, is about experimentation,” Keith said. “We can experiment about how we incubate.”

She said P&G Beauty tries to be at the service of the companies it acquires, versus the other way around — what was the group’s past strategy.

Back to leadership, Keith said she is keen to hear all the voices within her organization. One way to achieve that is “reverse mentoring,” which gives her a chance to meet and speak with younger employees.

Keith responds to each e-mail she receives. “People take the time to write, then I write back,” she said. “What happens then is it starts a dialogue.”


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