"I've had two of what I call `What the hell are you doing here?' jobs," a laughing Mr. George said of his first eight years at Unilever. The first was a marketing-manager position on the six-person Lever Bros. team at Wal-Mart Stores in Bentonville, Ark., in 1996. He followed that three years later by founding Unilever's global Wal-Mart team.
"I came in as the marketing guy for Wal-Mart, and [the other team members] said: `Wal-Mart doesn't really do marketing.' They were all about [everyday low prices]," he said. "But we started doing small things-not so much marketing with Wal-Mart, but really understanding Wal-Mart's customer and then talking with those people about our brands."
That six-person team has grown to about 50 for Unilever Home and Personal Care, 10 of them marketers. "The shopper is now on the agenda," Mr. George said.
In developing the global Wal-Mart team for Unilever, he logged as many as 369,000 miles a year as Wal-Mart was expanding into Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Korea, China, Germany and the U.K.
"I'd go to Mexico and say `I'm here to talk about Wal-Mart.' ... And [the local Unilever people] are saying: `Where? In the United States?"' he recalled. But five years later, when Wal-Mart was the biggest retailer in Mexico, "they were really thanking me."
Mr. George came back to the U.S. as part of the sales team that launched Axe in 2002, getting the deodorant brand in unexpected nooks of Wal-Mart frequented by men, like the automotive and electronics departments.
"He exemplifies the type of leaders we're looking for," said Todd Tillemans, general manager-deodorants for Unilever. "He's setting the example for some of our younger folks ... that the best way to progress in your career is early on to take a divergent path."
From the start, Mr. George's path has been a break with the package-goods norm. Straight out of school at Miami University of Ohio, he joined Seagram, where he was a merchandiser staging events in Chicago-area bars, later moving to regional sales and marketing manager for Absolut and Captain Morgan in Los Angeles.
With the personable demeanor of a good sales rep, Mr. George is out to bring more of the human touch to analytical marketers.
"We hire the smartest people in the world here," he said. "But not [often enough] do we ask for their hearts instead of their heads ... [to] make decisions with their guts, step forward and take risks."
For risk takers, Axe is a good place to start. As part of its Axe Ambassadors program-aimed at finding male students to run marketing programs on about 15 "influencer campuses" nationwide-the brand recently distributed thongs emblazoned with Web addresses to male students, sometimes surreptitiously slipping them into the dryers at off-campus Laundromats.
One of Mr. George's challenges is making marketing for Unilever's other deodorant brands-Degree, Dove and Suave-as much fun.
Name: Kevin George
Who: After being the first marketer on a Wal-Mart Stores sales team for Unilever and later forming Unilever's global Wal-Mart team, Mr. George became marketing director for Unilever's antiperspirants and deodorants in June. He'll head promotion and other local and retail marketing programs for Unilever's fast-growing Axe brand.
Man of character: Mr. George is one marketer who really has embodied his brand. "I spent seven years at
Seagram, where we didn't have any ad budgets. So dressing up as Captain Morgan was part of my job." Not only did he master that jaunty leg lift, but he also learned plenty about event marketing that he can apply to Unilever's deodorant brands.
One plus in working for Unilever: No walkabout icons.
Best sales job: Convincing his L.A. raised wife to move to Bentonville, Ark. "She said: 'Are you kidding me?... But it was the best decision I ever made."
Biggest challenge: "We have some very tough competitors. There's no doubt about that. The second [challenge] is making sure the consumer sees the message all the time. ... A communication idea is not an advertising idea plus a marketing idea. It's one message to consumers, executed through a bunch of different vehicles."