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Vasiliki Petrou firmly believes that successful luxury beauty brands are those that are purpose-driven, provide a true need, and can serve as a solution to consumer problems. The executive vice president of Unilever Prestige is also adamant about acquiring brands that have active founders with clear visions and strong voices who are committed to the long-term success of the brand.

Here, Petrou shares her perspective and insights into “the power of purpose,” the role of founders and why brands that solve needs first will always succeed.

Carisa Janes (left), founder of Hourglass Cosmetics, and Vasiliki Petrou, EVP of Unilever Prestige.  Maddie Cordoba

 WWD Studios: How would you describe the current state of the beauty industry? And how is Unilever Prestige positioned in it?

 Vasiliki Petrou: The beauty industry is resilient, we’ve seen it before. What I see at the moment is momentum … brands are accelerating in areas that were perhaps not as strong before but have quickly become the priority – like e-commerce and DTC.

 WWD Studios: Why is it important for a founder to be active in the brand? Or at least have their core principles active with the brand?

 V.P.: I’ve built the Prestige portfolio on the idea that purpose and founder-led brands are the future. When you have a founder and their values at the heart of a brand then everything you create and put out comes from a place of authenticity. Our founders started their brand to answer a genuine human need, and I’m passionate about keeping everything true to that.

Unilever Prestige essentially created this new white space in terms of how a business works with a founder. We were the first to discover how to nurture and keep founders integral to the brand’s vision. Founders are the heart and soul of the brand, and having them in an integral role in the business helps keep the vision of the brand intact.

 WWD Studios: And how can a brand’s founder being involved in the business elevate its authenticity?

 V.P.:  It’s simple – they are the ultimate protector of their brand and what it stands for. People don’t buy into the products, but them as a human being as well. When you create something from scratch as our founders have, the purpose and reason it began are so easy to communicate, and consumers can see the truth in that.

This is why Unilever Prestige has been successful. We’ve created an ecosystem and a model where the founders’ voice and vision are integral to the business as the brand continues on its journey, and evolves.

 WWD Studios: What would you say to this statement: “Authentic and purpose-driven brands are ones that tend to be born out of solving real-life problems?”

V.P.: Yes, absolutely, yes. I believe in that. Our brands have all been created to answer a need – whether it’s Kate Somerville or Vicky Tsai looking to soothe their own skin concerns, REN looking for ways to create skincare that is clean to both skin and planet, Hourglass and their vision to create a high-performance luxury cosmetics line that is cruelty-free. Dr Murad was responsible for the boom in the wellness trend, his pioneering philosophy for stress free lives, and skin, has always been his mission. They all solve problems.

When the founders of Dermalogica, for example, came to the U.S., they realized that skin and body therapy education was practically non-existent. This gave birth to The International Dermal Institute (IDI), and the product came later.

Our brands all have different visions and purpose, and all answer very real consumers needs. And the one thing they all have in common is an unconditional love to solve a need and a real problem. None of the founders established their business primarily to make money. And I truly believe that this purpose-driven approach is why these companies and brands succeed.

Hourglass Cosmetics’ Venice, Calif. flagship.  Courtesy Image.

WWD Studios: What would you say are some of the attributes and guiding principles of a purpose-driven brand?

V.P.: One of the things I always say is that we do first, and say later. We don’t just do CSR, our purpose is always at the core. By that I mean it’s so important that everything we do is driven by our purpose, and not simply trying to jump on a bandwagon. Consumers see through that quickly these days, so I would rather quietly create change and impact behind the scenes before telling the world about it!

WWD Studios: How would you describe your acquisition criteria? What do you look for in a brand?

V.P.: My criteria is really very simple. I’m always looking for exciting founder-led brands that have a purpose at their heart. I want to be able to immediately see and understand the legacy they’re going to leave on the world.

Creating a Purpose-Driven Future

In today’s world of growing consciousness, mission-driven brands are more important than ever before. Consumers today expect authentic and thoughtful messaging, seeking out companies that align with their own values and deliver positive impacts onto the world. Conscious consumers have been pushing for more through purchases and consumption behaviors, as they develop sustainable, principled lifestyles.

According to Unilever Prestige, a division of Unilever that holds the company’s premium brands, for companies, purpose is table stakes. Purpose is “the foundation of every experience. It is the underlying essence that makes a brand relevant and necessary.” The Unilever Prestige division, which last year was listed in WWD Beauty Inc. Top 100 ranking, includes only brands that embrace this mindset.

Though the desire to shop with brands that represent a purpose, is hardly a new concept from consumers. In 2018, Accenture data found that 63 percent of global consumers prefer to purchase products and services from companies that reflect their own values and will even avoid shopping from those who do not.

Staying True

For Vasiliki Petrou, executive vice president of Unilever Prestige, brands with purpose go hand in hand with the strength of a founder. “I really believe a lot of our strength is having our founders and their purpose so central to everything we do,” said Petrou. “We don’t create stories or choose to get behind things because that’s what everyone else is doing or it’s that months hot-topic. We are true to our purpose and our values, always. And consumers see our brands as a safe space where they know what we stand for, and what we’re doing in terms of our positive social impact.”

However, post Coronavirus outbreak, consumers are more vigilant than ever in demand for brand accountability, transparency, and authenticity.


TATCHA founder, Vicky Tsai, advocates for girls education through Room to Read.  Courtesy Image.

“We saw it almost immediately,” said Petrou. “But interestingly this came through in two key areas. First was that consumers become interested in how we as companies were looking after our staff – our industry is high touch so many of our staff could have been vulnerable, and I’m proud of how quickly we initiated work from home protocols across our brands and countries, And secondly is of course how we responded to the crisis unfolding around us – how are we supporting those on the front line, the health care workers for example. Each of the brands has really stepped up not only to support with product donations, hand sanitizer and PPE, but creating industry defining initiatives to ensure safety and confidence as the world resumes post lockdown.”

Going Further

In addition to the $100 million committed by Unilever globally, Unilever Prestige brands have facilitated the supply of 80,000 hand sanitizers for UCLA Health and over 100,000 products to front line healthcare workers, both directly and via charities in the U.S., U.K., and France. REN additionally produced 15,000 hand sanitizers and Tatcha has produced 1,000,000 face masks for healthcare workers. Dermalogica also spearheaded a clean touch certification with additional training and protocols for therapists ahead of returning to work. Additional initiatives were activated by Unilever Prestige to support No Kid Hungry, Foundation de France, MIT Solve, and BPA COVID Relief Fund.

Petrou says, however, the most obvious breakthrough has been the way brands are communicating through DTC channels. “We’ve had to accelerate and develop this muscle quickly, and it is serving us well,” said Petrou. “By being adaptable, we’ve been able to make up for a lot of the impact being experienced as a result of the closure of brick and mortar. We’ve taken employees who are used to delivering a human touch experience, and together we’ve worked with them on how they can deliver that same experience virtually. I believe there will always be a place for our brands in brick and mortar but exploring this way of communicating with our consumers in a different way will be something we continue.”

Dr. Murad

Dr. Howard Murad, founder of Murad Skincare.  Courtesy Image.

As new world orders solidify, the biggest change will be where and how beauty consumers shop. For Unilever brands, Petrou says brick-and-mortar will become more about the experience. “For our clinic brands there is always going to be a high-touch need and we will continue to evolve this safely,” said Petrou. “And our digital offering will continue to evolve to be a space where consumers can experience more of our storytelling and personalization virtually using our experts and consultants. Innovation and a new consumer need will obviously guide our development in those areas as Covid-19 changes behaviors and priorities.”

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