Mr. Cardoso, 44, became director of Unilever's low-income business for Latin America a year and a half ago.
During an earlier two-year stint as general manager for personal care at Unilever Pakistan, he saw the power of small shops, where customer relationships are passed down over generations, from father to son. "Some people spend their whole lives without leaving their block," he says. During a later assignment in impoverished northeast Brazil, he developed Unilever's first product for that region's low-income consumers, a detergent called Ala. The brand is now the No. 2 detergent there, with a local market share of about 16%.
Such new opportunities among untapped low-income consumers are important for a company that already controls about 80% of Brazil's detergent market. Mr. Cardoso says packaging, for example, can be designed by studying consumers' habits, like putting detergent in plastic bags for women in the northeast who wash their clothes in the river, or in humid laundry areas where tropical heat degrades a cardboard carton.
Mr. Cardoso oversaw Brazil's first in-depth research last year on low-income consumers, carried out by a local business school and an anthropologist. One thing Unilever learned was that the company's approach to low-income consumers was sometimes wrong.
"This happens because some people don't see themselves in the exact spot that regular social class studies usually place them," he says.