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Unilever Prestige Chief Shares Her Vision

“We need to write history and create a new culture of beauty,” said Vasiliki Petrou.

Vasiliki Petrou has a mission.

“We need to write history and create a new culture of beauty, new language, new business models, to grow the category in ways that haven’t been done before,” said the executive vice president of Unilever Prestige. “This is something that is very exciting to me.”

She stepped into her current role six-and-a-half years ago, when the executive began building from scratch the Unilever Prestige division, which last year generated sales of approximately 600 million euros, according to the WWD Beauty Inc Top 100 ranking. Combined with its mass businesses, Unilever is the second-largest beauty-maker worldwide.

Petrou keeps cherry-picking brands for the group’s portfolio. Over the past 18 months, that’s included the purchases of Garancia, Tatcha and Lenor.

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Here, Petrou discusses the COVID-19 crisis, beauty’s changing complexion and why she asks interviewees where they food shop.

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How is the pandemic changing the concept of prestige and high-touch beauty?

Vasiliki Petrou: There is a new normal that’s being redefined as we speak. The only thing we’re sure of at this point is that the virtual world is taking on a new life and is replacing, to some extent, a lot of the high-touch elements of beauty. Not, obviously, the face-to-face human [component], but you can do consultations online that we didn’t do as much of [previously].

[We’re discovering] a new muscle — virtual interaction with consumers — that we didn’t know we had to that extent. This as a positive thing. It would be really great to accelerate that muscle, but then also reinvent the human touch and the brick-and-mortar experience, because we definitely don’t want to go backward.

What’s the future of brick-and-mortar retailing?

V.P.: It’s going to be more experience-led, around education, entertainment, experiential discovery and human [contact]. Otherwise, you would wonder what the difference is between a machine and a person, and we know that people love people. That’s what defines humanity. So nothing will replace the one-to-one consultation, that intimacy and privacy. Brick-and-mortar will have a big role to play, but also I see it in a newly invented role.

How has the crisis impacted your thinking on distribution, where channels such as department stores are hard hit?

V.P.: Unilever Prestige is not exposed to a lot of heritage retail that has come under stress. I had the luxury to choose what channels we can play in, and we did it with the future lens, versus the lens of the past.

What is your thinking on acquisitions?

V.P.: I’ve said all along that we are always looking at acquisitions. We are very picky about who we partner with, because it’s a marriage for the long term. We’re always looking at everything. We have said we will not play — at least for the time being — in fragrance, because fragrance has been commoditized over the years.

Can you comment on reports that Unilever is looking to acquire Charlotte Tilbury?

V.P.: We are a public company, so we never comment on M&A.

How are you viewing sustainability in view of the COVID-19 pandemic?

V.P.: If anything our ambition on sustainability has only gotten stronger in the post-COVID-19 world.

Sustainability is part of the DNA of the Unilever company. Unilever remains committed to reusing virgin plastic by 2023, with a long-term goal of [it] being 100 percent recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. In Prestige, we are working in the same direction.

We believe that the planet will not change by one company alone. An industry game-changing plan needs to happen.

How is beauty consumption shifting?

V.P.: A consumer change is the use of technology, [including] the older population.

I am pretty sure that once people go out to their companies, offices, socially, they are still going to use beauty. They may think twice about buying an expensive bag, but I can guarantee they’re not going to think twice about putting a quality, premium skin-care brand on their face or using good color cosmetics or a good hair-care brand.

We know now how beauty is synonymous with self-esteem, making people have positivity, giving that extra confidence. I’m definitely an optimist about consumer behavior being the way it was — and hopefully stronger in the future.

What are concerns today?

V.P.: What is worrying is what if we fail to deliver on the opportunity to reinvent ourselves. We need to look at everything with a new lens and reinvent it in a more optimal way versus just doing the same thing. That would be disappointing to me.

I have noticed in the industry that when there is stress people start accelerating promotions and not providing the same richness of content that was the case before. Now, more than ever, the consumer needs relevant, engaging but also purpose-driven content that is useful and shows that you are empathetic, listening and responding to their needs.

What have learned about leadership at Unilever?

V.P.: Our ceo, Mr. Alan Jope, has been the best-in-class example I have seen of somebody who has put the safety of people first and foremost. What Mr. Jope has taught everybody in Unilever — not just me — is how our highest principles and our ethos are quite solid and proven in times of crisis.

Who are your mentors?

V.P.: My inspiration is always the founders in the business — and I can call them mentors, as well — because they are entrepreneurs, always see beyond what other people see. This is what I gravitate toward. I love their pioneering spirit, and they’re always [reinventing themselves]. We always talk about: How do we lead beauty? How do we create white space that hasn’t been [there] before?

What was your first job?

V.P.: I started working in the summers when I was 13 years old. My dad encouraged me to work in the hospitality industry, so I was a receptionist in a luxury hotel on Skiathos Island in Greece. It taught me early to appreciate the ethos of work — to love what you do, always be the best you can be and exceed expectations at all times.

What are favorite questions to ask during an interview?

V.P.: One is: “Where do you shop for food?” It links into [people’s] compass, their ethos, their principles and values. It’s very much about how do you treat your body.

The second thing is about what sports do they do, because that also gives me an insight into personality, values, ethos, how curious they are about life, and how open they are to exploring new things.