The Replenisher Shampoo and Conditioner

Is Unilever moving from buying to building brands?

The Anglo-Dutch personal care giant is adding a new label to its personal care portfolio, and this time, it did not acquire it.

ApotheCare Essentials is a hair and body cleansing line derived from botanical ingredients, with prices that fall in the masstige range. Entering CVS doors in November, the line is following a selective distribution strategy that blends drugstore retail with e-commerce, including Amazon and Birchbox — and excludes some mass retailers, like Wal-Mart.

The apothecary-inspired brand is the first that Unilever has launched in the U.S. in decades. For the past two years, Unilever has made headlines as it hurdled along on an acquisition spree, snapping up brands like Kate Somerville, Living Proof and Hourglass for its burgeoning prestige portfolio.

ApotheCare is also part of Unilever’s efforts to speed up its internal processes in order to get products to market faster. The brand was built in under a year by a nimble team of four people in an incubator-style setup meant to mimic start-up culture, overseen by the company’s vice president of hair care, Piyush Jain.

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“Natural is no longer a trend — it’s a lifestyle choice our consumers are making. There [is a demand] for brands with natural in their core belief systems, and that combined with the potency of science really creates the best in beauty,” said Jain. “We identified this need space for natural ingredients, and we wanted to move quickly, so we created a separate team that was smaller and more nimble and allowed us to go fast.”

The line is broken down into four collections — geranium, vanilla, jasmine and lavender. Each collection contains a shampoo and conditioner, and sprinkled throughout are body washes, oils and trend-driven hair items like dry shampoo. Prices range from $10.99 to $12.99.

Despite the growing number of naturally propositioned brands in the mass market, Jain asserts that a proprietary phyto-extraction process that renders the products both natural and efficacious, as explained to consumers on the products’ outer packaging, is ApotheCare ‘s point of differentiation. “There’s nothing in the U.S. market that exists in this space,” said Jain, explaining the brand’s point of differentiation but also making a case for why Unilever built the brand instead of bought it.

“It’s not one or the other,” said Jain when asked if Unilever was now done acquiring brands in favor of building its own. “It’s about taking the opportunity when we see a need in a space. We constantly evaluate what are the unmet needs of consumer in market — in this case,  the right answer in this space was the launch of a new brand.”

ApotheCare is aiming for a more premium angle than the mass brands Jain oversees, like Dove and TRESemmé. With that comes a more varied distribution strategy, with an emphasis on e-commerce while maintaining a strong retail footprint. The brand will enter CVS doors this month and expand into wider distribution in January. Jain could not say which stores had confirmed yet, but noted the brand is targeting beauty-specific retailers. The products will also be readily available on e-commerce, via Amazon and Birchbox.

“We’re being more selective in where this brand [is sold],” said Jain. “Especially in the premium segment, you’re [judged] by the company you keep.”

Unilever will rely on heavy targeted sampling and a microinfluencer campaign launching in January to market the brand. Teddi Cranford, a hairdresser who founded the White Rose Collective salon in downtown Manhattan, has been tapped as ApotheCare’s “lead stylist,” aka brand ambassador.

Consumer testing was a big part of the development process.

“From the beginning we worked with a select few agencies [that did consumer testing], so consumers became part of the development process,” said Jain, who noted that working with a smaller team allowed for quicker decision-marking. “The testing we did was more frequent and rapid, and we didn’t have multiple stakeholders to run approval by — we created empowerment and ownership within the team that allowed them to make decisions fast.”

This tweaking of the traditional corporate structure to incubate and bring a new brand to market quickly is fast-growing strategy not just for Unilever, but for other major public companies within the beauty and personal care space that know they need to be more nimble and entrepreneurial-minded to compete.

“A lot of that is going on,” said Wendy Liebmann, chief executive officer of WSL Strategic Retail. “You see it in personal care and food — [big companies are saying], we’ll get our smartest people in a room and let them use our technology and facilities, but they [have to] move faster [than the rest of the organization.]” 

“We will take some of these learnings and use them with the Unilever portfolio in terms of innovation and how we look at new brand launches in the future,” said Jain.

For more from WWD, see:

Kering, L’Oréal and Unilever Score ‘A’ Grades in Climate Ranking

Currency Movements Dent Unilever Growth in Third Quarter

Unilever Adds Hourglass to Portfolio

Retailers Increasingly Bet on Beauty

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