After years of men in a male-dominated package goods industry managing brands sold mainly to women, an odd turnabout is taking place, and Esther Lem is at its core. As vice president for brand development for antiperspirants and deodorants for Unilever in North America, she finds herself presiding over one of the biggest men's personal-care launches in U.S. history.
Unilever in August begins the $90 million launch of its Axe men's deodorant and body spray brand in the U.S. The Axe introduction follows the $35 million launch in March of a male-positioned Degree gel antiperspirant aimed at boosting the gender-neutral brand's appeal among guys.
"I've had an absolutely wonderful last 18 months getting into the headset of an 18-year-old guy, and I've got to tell you, it's a lot of fun," says Ms. Lem, 45. "I didn't understand it when I was an 18-year-old female, but I certainly understand it now."
Born in Canada, Ms. Lem came to Unilever in 1998 from account management for WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, Toronto, then brand management with the former Warner-Lambert Co. in Canada. Once at Unilever, she began overseeing a wide range of home- and personal-care brands in Canada.
Ms. Lem in 2000 came to the U.S., where she and other Unilever marketing executives have been focused squarely on the young male psyche as they prepare for the company's biggest personal-care launch of any kind since the 1997 debut of the Thermasilk hair care brand, which topped $100 million in sales in its first year.
The married mother of 5-year-old daughter, Ms. Lem says she has a 20 golf handicap she doesn't expect to get any better as she concentrates on increasingly time-consuming duties at Unilever.
She describes her career as having several smaller successes leading to progressively larger challenges. Axe is by far her biggest challenge yet as Unilever strives to overtake Procter & Gamble Co. in the U.S. "We're going for leadership in this category," she says.