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Unilever’s Sunny Jain Lays Out His Strategic Vision

Sunny Jain had only been at Unilever for nine months before his new hometown of London began locking down in March. By then, the spread of COVID-19 had already been sending shocks through Unilever, which was forced to pull its growth projections for 2020, reallocate funds, support suppliers and find a way to cope with new, and unpredictable, patterns of demand across the 190 countries where Unilever’s products, which range from face cream to ice cream and home cleaning supplies, are sold.

A digital whiz and marketeer, the 45-year-old Jain had previously worked at Amazon in Seattle and at Procter & Gamble in Canada and the U.S., so was able to move quickly, accelerating the beauty brands’ online offer and ramping up the distribution of Unilever’s health and hygiene products across all markets.

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As Unilever’s president of Beauty & Personal Care, Jain’s moves included getting kids to wash their hands so they wouldn’t spread the virus and marketing deodorants to stay-at-home workers who were no longer breaking a sweat on their way to and from the office.

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The company partnered with the British government on products aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19, and did a campaign with the hair-care brand Clear, that looked to help customers to manage their mental well-being.

“This has always been an industry of hopes and dreams, and my belief is that beauty and personal care is all about translating the hopes and dreams of our consumers, and other stakeholders, into reality,” said Jain, stressing that, pandemic or not, Unilever always has to be “hyper-relevant” to consumers.

During lockdown, and one year into the job, the Black Lives Matter and antiracism protests erupted, forcing Jain to announce prematurely that Unilever was shifting to a more inclusive vision of beauty, eliminating words such as “fair,” “white,” and “light” from its packaging and communication. The company would later announce that it was changing the name of its Fair & Lovely skin cream, which is sold across Asia, to Glow & Lovely.

During those high-wire months, Jain also managed to strike a deal with Alibaba’s Tmall to create a digitally driven incubator for China-based entrepreneurs, innovators and technology start-ups, aimed at helping Unilever bring ideas to market and launch new brands in a fraction of the time it would usually take.

All those events helped Jain to sharpen his strategy for Beauty & Personal Care, Unilever’s largest division with turnover of 15.9 billion euros in the first nine months of 2020, just over 40 percent of the consumer giant’s sales of 38.6 billion euros in the period. Those events also reinforced Jain’s own basic beliefs about the planet, and how Unilever should be working with those living on it.

A married father of two and proud Canadian, Jain holds top degrees from Ontario’s McMaster University, in finance, and in engineering physics and management. He also loves a local metaphor, often speaking in ice hockey terms about “following the puck” with regard to digital or consumer trends, or arguing that Unilever must battle its digitally savvy competitors with drones, not “old Canadian Mountie horses.”

Early next year, Jain will lay out plans for “Positive Beauty,” his strategy for the division. He said he wants beauty and personal care to become “the most people- and planet-positive beauty business in the entire world. I’m super excited to bring this alive,” he said in an exclusive interview from his London home during England’s second lockdown. “It’s exactly why I came to Unilever.”

Jain is a man of action. “We’re not just going to say we’re doing things that are good for society, we’re going to actually do things on the ground. We’re not just going to do ‘less harm’ or ‘no harm,’ we’re going to do positive things for the planet. It’s about doing better,” he said.

He believes that vision taps into the consumers of today, and tomorrow. “Younger consumers don’t care about brands that are just providing functional benefits, they want to associate themselves with brands that are doing good for the people in society, and the planet,” said Jain. “This is a future-fit vision, one that is going to be enduring over time.”

More than a decade ago, Unilever was one of the first big corporate players to make serious moves in the environmental arena, set goals around reducing its carbon footprint and improve its social impact.

The company’s first green cheerleader was former chief executive officer Paul Polman, who’s now working with the big luxury groups, and others, on poverty and climate change.

Alan Jope, Polman’s successor as ceo, has taken up the green mantle, and earlier this year pledged one billion euros to a new Climate and Nature Fund, with Unilever promising to be carbon neutral by 2039—more than a decade ahead of the 2050 Paris Agreement.

Jain’s plan is for the product formulations in the division to be 100 percent biodegradable and to ensure that 100 percent of plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, in line with Unilever’s overarching goals.

In the U.S. and Europe, Dove—one of the division’s biggest brands—is already using 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic, which has a far lower carbon footprint than virgin plastic.

Jain also wants the division to “measurably improve the health, well-being and inclusion” of one billion people by the end of the decade. He touts Lifebuoy soap’s existing handwashing program as an example, but argues there is more to be done, noting that two million children under the age of five die every year from diseases that can be prevented by hand washing.

“When the pandemic started, we [believed that we] had a much bigger purpose than just ‘in the market’ serving our consumers. We needed to serve the entire world, preventing diseases by making people wash their hands more,” said Jain.

From the start, Unilever’s message was an unconventional one, urging people to “wash your hands with soap, any soap,” even bars and gels made by Unilever’s competitors. Within two weeks of the initial outbreak of COVID-19, Lifebuoy was ramping up its production of personal hygiene products, and launched sanitizers into more than 50 markets within 100 days.

The brand is currently running a campaign for children called “H for Handwashing,” and working in tandem with bodies including the governments of South Africa and India, to promote the program.

More recently, Jain’s division developed mouthwash technology that has the potential to reduce the viral load of the COVID-19 virus by 99.9 percent. According to the company, preliminary test results show that using a mouthwash with the new technology could reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

Jain also wants to continue Unilever’s work on self-esteem and advocacy with initiatives such as the Dove Crown Act in the U.S., which has been instrumental in enacting legislation that ends discrimination based on hair type.

But that’s not to say purpose outweighs profit in the executive’s strategy. Jain is laser-focused on China and keenly aware of the competition there—especially from smaller brands and local start-ups.

In September, Unilever unveiled Uni-Excubator, a digitally driven incubator designed to collaborate with entrepreneurs, innovators and technology start-ups in China, in partnership with Tmall.

Jain chose China to be the launch market for Unilever’s first external incubator, because “it has one of the most advanced, technology-led eco-systems in the world,” and is a priority market for Unilever’s beauty and personal-care business. He added that Unilever is “keen to create more ‘made-in-China’ brands,” and that Uni-Excubator will be instrumental in doing that.

While mega-brands such as Dove and Lifebuoy drive growth and can impact on society, he makes a strong case for the small, emerging brands, too. “What they bring to the table is new hope, new innovations and new ways to look at things. Thousands of brands every year are launching in China. If we play the same game they’re playing, then we’ll only be able to launch a few brands a year to compete with their thousands. During my very first trip to China as a Unilever leader, I realized that we could leverage artificial intelligence and learn to launch many new brands at scale.”

He said the Alibaba partnership will bring together “their digital know-how and ours, so we can create new brands and consumer insights together.”

“We’ll be able to move from trend and insight generation to market within weeks, using 90 percent fewer Unilever people than before,” he said. “We’re speaking with entrepreneurs to bring their ideas to the table and we’re able to launch new brands at scale. It’s a major disruption that we’re going to bring. It’s never been done before in the industry.”

In addition to China, Jain said Unilever has built a lot of technology since he arrived 18 months ago, “which helps us to understand trends and consumer needs and to innovate. We are the most consumer-obsessed company in the world.”

When it comes to technology, he takes the long view. “Digital implementation may look small at the beginning, but big things take time,” he said. “The Internet didn’t happen overnight; it took decades to occur. Sometimes, you need to have a long-term focus, and you also have to be willing to fail. Failure is important in the digital world because this is a pioneering industry and pioneers don’t know exactly what the right solution is. You need to iterate your way there.”

One thing he is very clear about: Success depends on physical and digital retail working together seamlessly. As an example, Jain cites Dollar Shave Club, where he serves as chairman. “It’s a digitally native brand, but we just launched it into physical retail. We want to bring the brand to as many consumers as possible, but we also believe we can innovate faster on behalf of our consumers,” said Jain. “We’re using artificial intelligence to come up with potentially big innovations, and then going from trends to products in record time.

“We can test things online,” he continued, “and then we can launch the winners in the stores—because you can’t beat the reach of all the big retailers in the U.S.”

Jope, who was head of Beauty & Personal Care before he became ceo, described Jain as having “an appetite for bold and disruptive thinking,” adding that his successor hasn’t stopped moving since he arrived. “He took this year of immense change as an opportunity to set out an ambitious new vision. Sunny has led the team through one of the most challenging years in recent memory,” said Jope. “Watch this space to see what comes next.”

Jope himself was unstoppable when he ran the division between 2014 and 2019, although he had another priority, acquisitions in the prestige space. Between 2014 and 2018, Unilever bought 24 companies, most of them in beauty and personal care, including Living Proof, Dermalogica, SheaMoisture, Carver Korea, Italy’s Equilibra, Ren and Kate Somerville.

“We don’t want to play in prestige just as a niche activity. We want to build it into a big business,” Jope told Beauty Inc in 2015. “This is a growth play for us in two regards: Number one, it is a faster-growing segment, no matter what time period or geography you look at. Secondly, it’s all white space,” he continued. “If we launch another mass-market shampoo or skin cream, there will be an element of cannibalization. But as we step into the prestige business—that is all incremental for us.”

Jain sees it as his job to ensure those high-end brands deliver.

“Premium is a space that is growing very rapidly, we’ve got a beautiful business that is exceeding our expectations and we have big plans. Our first milestone is to take it to one billion euros in sales and we’re well on track to do so,” he said, although Unilever has not disclosed a time scale for that milestone.

“The brands have so much potential, and they will become some of the biggest in the portfolio at some point in the future. We need to be careful on how fast we scale them—and the way we do it—because they’re precious, and they need to maintain their equity.”

A big focus right now is enabling those smaller, premium brands to embrace online. “One of the big ways of scaling these businesses is through digital disruption, which is my area of expertise having come from Amazon. On top of that, we’re super-fortunate that we have all the founders of our prestige businesses still around,” he said. “They are the biggest leaders in the industry, and they started trends that are now going mainstream.”

Jain said Unilever has begun using face-mapping technology, and digitizing the way that consumers are made aware of brands. The company has been working closely with key online influencers and with retailers to shift consultations and transactions, online—a strategy that accelerated during lockdown.

Today, more than 50 percent of the prestige business is being done online through Unilever’s retail partners. Jope said the prestige business is now “leading growth in its segment” thanks to Jain’s rapid reorientation to online selling.          

Jain also sees growth opportunity for the prestige brands in China, “and we have plans to pursue that in the next 12 months.”

There will be more acquisitions, too, but clearly not at the rapid-fire pace set by Jope. “We are very open to other brands joining our family, and if we find an opportunity where we can partner up, we’ll do that, but now it’s about growing what we have,” said Jain.

Unilever has also been attempting to course-correct with regard to one of its longstanding businesses, skin whitening. Last June, amid the antiracism protests worldwide, Unilever announced it was removing references to “white” and “whitening” in its skin-care products, and that it planned to change the name of its Fair & Lovely brand.

The consumer giant said it wanted to promote a “more inclusive vision of beauty,” and will also remove the words fair/fairness and light/lightening from all Unilever products.

The words most frequently appear on creams and treatments aimed at making Asian women’s skin lighter and more even-toned, conforming to a Western ideal of beauty, wealth and social status.

Jain said Unilever had already been working on the evolution of Fair & Lovely “progressively moving to a more inclusive vision of beauty that celebrates skin glow.”

It has already changed the advertising, communication and—more recently—the packaging in South Asia, and last year removed the before-and-after impressions and “shade guides.” It has progressively tried to put the focus on women’s empowerment, emphasizing that “no association should be made between skin tone and a person’s achievement, potential or worth.”

During the interview, Jain posited that inclusivity is an integral part of his positive vision for Beauty & Personal Care. “We want to build a positive and inclusive portfolio, and to move on from this notion of singular beauty ideals that has been plaguing the industry for a long time. We’ve been working on this for years, but you can’t just change it overnight,” he said. “This is a massive brand, and the change has to be strategic and authentic.”

He said Unilever had planned to announce the name change to Glow & Lovely in line with his positive vision roadmap, but pushed the announcement forward due to the protests taking place.

Going forward, Unilever will feature women of different skin tones, “who are representative of the variety of beauty that you see across the countries,” where Glow & Lovely sells.

“We’re going to play the long game, and help to reframe the beauty ideals in India that have been there for hundreds of years. We will be a brand that celebrates glowing and radiant skin, regardless of tone or color. That is a fundamental change,” he said.

Asked about the legacy he wants to leave at Unilever, Jain doesn’t hesitate. He wants his colleagues to “think big and to help consumers achieve their big dreams through our products, our vision of people and the planet-positive impact we’re going to have. I want the culture to be big-thinking, purpose-driven and make a big impact on society and the planet. I want a huge commitment to win on behalf of our consumers,” he said.

He’s been blasting out that message, in person, when he can, and—inevitably—online. Asked about managing his teams on the computer and phone screen, Jain said he’s an old hand at the digital game.

“Through the use of technology, and my comfort with it, I believe we actually came closer through the pandemic. When you’re on your video camera talking to everybody, they’re in their homes, their personal spaces. They have paintings and photographs—and that becomes a conversation. You learn more about the people.

“People saw my kids interrupt calls when they weren’t at school, and I got to meet the kids of many of my team, I met their spouses, partners and pets. We learned so much more about each other than if we were just having dinner together. You become much closer,” he said.

Jain pointed out that technology has bound the farther-flung Unilever community together. For example, this year, thousands of people worldwide joined Unilever’s annual, all-company event in November.

“Tens of thousands of people interacted with the executive teams at Unilever to understand priorities, ask questions—and engage. This has been a difficult and challenging moment, but it’s also been a moment when we have come together as a team much more deeply than ever before.”