Silvia Lagnado, the Brazilian behind the bold push celebrating real women that was trumpeted at awards shows and endlessly debated in the media, quietly decamped for a different Unilever division in June. Her decidedly unglamorous title: group VP-savory foods.
But the project she's whispered to be heading is anything but boring. It's highly classified, global and aimed at extending Unilever into relatively new territory. Patent activity indicates it might well be snack foods containing a compound shown to improve mental alertness and focus.
Unilever and Ms. Lagnado declined to comment on her new duties. Adding to the intrigue, she remains based in London, far from Unilever's food and beverage business, which is headquartered in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
In addition to applying for a patent for the compound, Unilever also applied to trademark the term "brain food" across several categories, including snacks. A third application covers low-fat snacks that wouldn't require a fake fat like rival Procter & Gamble Co.'s Olestra.
Such projects fall under Unilever's "vitality" movement, which unites its personal-care, food and beverage brands around the banner of improving health, looks or enjoyment of life. CEO Patrick Cescau has said Unilever will devote the bulk of its roughly $2 billion annual research-and-development budget to vitality-focused products. "We are trying to focus more and more on bigger-bang innovations," he recently told investors.
And who better to make some noise than Ms. Lagnado? The 42-year-old executive has been one of Unilever's fastest-rising stars since joining the company in 1987 and has become the most prominent woman in a traditionally male-dominated company. She was the first Dove global brand director in a newly created role in 2001 that gave her power over everything from advertising to capital investment on the company's biggest brand.
She established her reputation even more firmly by backing the controversial "Campaign for Real Beauty" led by WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather, London. The breakthrough effort rocked convention by taking issue with the industry's conventional focus on models and extolling more ordinary-looking women, plastering billboards with images such as zaftig women in their undies to advertise Dove firming body cream. Under her watch, Dove soared to nearly four years of double-digit growth, earning her the title of senior VP of the global brand in 2005.
The campaign was rewarded with gold and bronze Effies in 2006 for campaign effectiveness and several U.S. creative awards, including two silver and two bronze Clios in 2005. It also won a Bronze Lion at Cannes in the outdoor category in 2005.
It will take some star power to help Mr. Cescau boost growth that lags behind the company's major global competitors, including P&G, L'Oreal and Nestle. Unilever's stock took a 5% beating last month after it reported 3.9% organic sales growth. While near the high end of previous guidance, growth was below what many investors were hoping for.
That Unilever also raised its target sales growth to 3%-5% adds to pressure, particularly on the food business, which along with home care is dragging down company results. Unilever's personal-care business grew 6.5% globally in the second quarter, comparable to P&G and L'Oreal, Prudential Securities said in a research note. But the food-and-beverage business grew only 2.5%, and savory, dressings and spreads only 2.2%.
Though home and personal care are the biggest part of Unilever's U.S. business, food and beverage accounts for more than half of global sales and some industry watchers believe Unilever's 2000 acquisitions of Bestfoods, Slimfast and Ben & Jerry's were mistakes that lowered the company's margins and top-line growth.
Moreover, rumors that a private-equity consortium might bid for a major stake or control of the company and seek to break it up have swirled for a year. "Shareholder activism has already surfaced at H.J. Heinz, and Unilever has been mentioned as a potential target given the underperformance and the potential value creation from a spinoff of home and personal care," said Prudential Securities analyst John McMillin in a research note.
"I'm not looking over my shoulder," Mr. Cescau told investors last month in response to the private-equity rumors. But he may be hoping Ms. Lagnado has his back.