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Women to Watch: Kathy O'Brien

VP-Personal Care Marketing for North America, Unilever

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BATAVIA, Ohio ( -- After a career mainly focused on marketing to women, Unilever's Kathy O' Brien has been learning quickly about marketing to men.

The VP-personal care marketing for North America led the launch earlier this year of Dove Men Plus Care in the U.S, a male personal-wash line from a brand made famous in part thanks to Ms. O' Brien's work in recent years on the "Campaign for Real Beauty" for women.

Some doubted Dove could make the leap, but Ms. O' Brien said the men's line has exceeded expectations so far.

A lot of men were already using Dove, she said. The brand's audience -- men in their 30s and up, focused much more on family than their cars or jobs and who are "comfortable in their own skin" -- seems to be buying the proposition, as is a secondary audience, she said, women who often buy soap for their men.

Guys have become the fastest-growing segment in U.S. personal care, and Ms. O' Brien said Unilever has accounted for 66% of that growth the past five years outside of razors, which it doesn't market. Her job is to keep that up as the market grows, by her projections, from $2.1 billion in 2009 to $2.8 billion in 2012.

She became VP-marketing over the entire Unilever personal-care business in March as the company prepares to consolidate its hair and deodorant marketing group, now in Chicago, with the skin-care group in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., later this year.

"It gives us the opportunity to leverage our master brands," Ms. O' Brien said, and by making the organization less siloed, "make sure we can push key trends across the categories."

In more than two decades at Unilever, Ms. O' Brien has seen a few restructurings, and she notes she has tended to do well during them.

After starting with the company in sales, she became assistant to then-Lever Bros. CEO Charles Strauss in 1995 in part to help with a reorganization bringing acquisitions together and in part to accommodate her schedule as she earned an MBA from Columbia. "I realized marketing was going to be more and more activation of our brands at store level," Mr. Strauss said. "I thought it would be good to develop a marketing person who understood the realities of marketing and merchandising at retail."

He describes Ms. O' Brien as "open, frank, down to earth [and] especially good at working in a team structure."

After a subsequent stop in brand development on laundry, Ms. O' Brien again oversees trade marketing, now for personal care, in addition to broader North American marketing plans for initiatives that start with global brand development.

"It's not at all that they just throw it over the wall and we take it," Ms. O' Brien said. "They really do understand the needs of the region [and] once we get it in the region, we are able to tailor it."

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