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Jostein Solheim on Unilever’s Wellness Play

As the market’s global opportunities expand, Solheim is approaching Unilever’s health and well-being portfolio with an eye toward blurred category lines and acquiring market leaders for universal needs.

The $4.4 trillion wellness industry doesn’t have clearly defined categories, and it’s that gray area where Jostein Solheim, chief executive officer of Unilever’s health and well-being division, sees the most room for innovation.

“This is such an exciting moment. When it comes to the health and well-being space, you realize it’s about needs, it’s about meeting people where they are, this modern lifestyle,” Solheim said in conversation with WWD’s executive editor of beauty, Jenny B. Fine. “There’s no category definition of products, devices, health and embracing the category blurring to put the user’s needs first is what makes it so exciting. That’s what makes it such a great growth opportunity.”

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Unilever created the Health and Wellbeing division in 2018 with the acquisition of Equilibra. Since then, it has bought a number of companies, including Olly, Liquid I.V., SmartyPants, Welly, Onnit and, most recently, Nutrafol. Sales are about 1 billion euros, with the goal of reaching 3 billion euros in the next few years.

Solheim said the business is being fueled by younger consumers. “We’ve seen a huge pivot and it’s mostly generational. Millennials kicked it off and Gen Z is bringing an incredibly well-informed group of people that are creating their own health — physical and mental,” he said, adding that social media has democratized access to information from product reviews to clinical trials.

The coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated a shift in mind-set, with consumers thinking of health as a lifestyle, as opposed to taking a problem-solution approach to different ailments. “The pandemic made people realize that scientists are kind of cool,” he said. “We’re seeing a huge progress in science around understanding our microbiome and its impact on our mental and physical unity, on the aging process.”

That science-first approach is part of Solheim’s category-agnostic view of health and wellness, and he aims to clinically validate each brand’s results. “How do businesses make an impact by science?” he mused. “I see myself as being in a job of putting science to work for the betterment of human health.” Nutrafol, for example, boasts curcumin — the anti-inflammatory compound found in turmeric — at 500 times the potency of the herb itself.

Olly, with collections like Sleep, Stress and Beauty, best epitomizes the embrace of benefits-based merchandising, choosing to focus on each product’s claims than the specific vitamins or nutrients they include. Solheim said, “Instead of using letters [on the packaging], it is skin health — taking that shelf, simplifying it, allowing the users to customize and personalize their journey.”

Similarly, Liquid I.V., an electrolyte drink mix with multiple uses from sports hydration to hangover cure, sits in various sections of physical stores, where it has benefited from being placed by need rather than in the company of other sports drinks. “A lot of people arriving at Walgreens…were impulse buying it until we put it into the alcohol section. These places are incredibly incremental,” Solheim said. “That is the belief system, they were not shopping in that category, they were shopping in that need.”

Unilever, whose most recent acquisition was Nutrafol, is also eyeing bigger players in smaller categories, with the ambition to build the division’s portfolio via highly specialized brands.

“They are all what I call a little slice — one or two things that they do extremely well, and where they stand out,” Solheim said of the current portfolio. The primary offering is ingestibles, particularly gummies or powders, but Solheim isn’t ruling out those with potential for topical products. “We’re looking for companies that are ingestibles, and then topicals,” he said.

Eyeing smaller or burgeoning categories, though, means Solheim is also ready to broach taboo subjects, ranging from feminine health to mental health.

“The intersection between mental health and physical health is probably where we see the biggest generation shift as well. There’s some readiness to speak about it, willingness to seek advice, but we haven’t got a magic wand in figuring it out,” he said.

Part of addressing mental health doesn’t just come from a product point of view. “We partnered with the Jed Foundation, for mental health and suicide prevention,” he said, calling out Unilever’s partnership with Walmart to bring funding and awareness to more mental health advocacy organizations.

“We can act on it, and be a part of the communities that are reacting to [mental health] and a part of the organizations that are supporting it to figure out how we tie that together with our business,” Solheim said.

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Feminine health presents another opportunity, said Solstein, who added he didn’t understand why something so commonplace was shrouded in secrecy.

“It’s kind of strange that we are not tackling [it]…that nobody talks about it,” he said. “So, how we break down these taboos in respectful ways, and relevant ways, so that we can tackle the issues and support people on these journeys is important.”

In that same vein, Solheim said hair loss was a “global” issue, second behind weight loss as a wellness concern. “With women, it’s even stronger,” he said. “We see ourselves yes, maybe at one point globally, and we see it as a responsibility that we have with these solutions to do other geographies.”

International expansion is a key opportunity for wellness companies. “The market today is very dynamic. It’s very large in China, and it’s very fragmented in Europe,” he said. “I do see this as a global movement, though they will take slightly different forms with different cultures and different heritage around health.”

Unilever’s portfolio represents key distribution channels as well, with roughly 50 percent of the business coming from brick-and-mortar, while the offer half is digitally native.

“We’re seeing a merging,” Solheim said. “Gen Z is fully informed with their social network before actually making the purchase, particularly of one of our products, and that we see even in-store. What we’re seeing is blending, fully, we’re also seeing the power of the ecosystem for this ability, because people do want to shop at a shop and want to have an experience.”

The future of wellness isn’t just in the mass market, Solheim continued. “I do think a lot of the cutting edge will start at the premium end, and then we can democratize.”