Why Unilever Needs Love Beauty and Planet

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Like other big packaged-goods players, Unilever launched few new brands in recent decades as it focused on making big brands such as Dove even bigger. But the company's personal care business alone has launched three brands in the U.S. in the past month and eight globally in the past year, including the latest, due to hit stores next month: Love Beauty and Planet.

It's a decidedly crunchy granola-sounding name for something that comes from a global behemoth with more than $60 billion in annual sales. But it's actually the biggest project among Unilever's recent U.S. launches, which also include customized e-commerce-only subscription skincare brand Skinsei and Apothecare Essentials, a natural-positioned brand like Love Beauty and Planet, but with a more customized product range and more limited distribution in e-commerce, drug and beauty specialty stores.

LBP will also go into mass, grocery, e-commerce and any natural-products retailer that will take such a mass-market offering, the company says. The idea is to create a brand with strong natural and sustainability credentials that also performs well, says Piyush Jain, VP of haircare at Unilever.

The new brands are aimed at dealing with a fragmenting world where small competitors are collectively taking share from big players. They're targeted to millennials and Unilver is developing them via small teams working with outside partners on short deadlines. For LBP, a team of about five or six Unilever people worked with Ashoka Changemakers, a global network of "social innovators" to create the brand from scratch in under a year—about half the time Unilever projects normally take, Jain says.

Unilever already has natural products in such brands as Suave and Tresemme. "But we also realized we needed something that had the core of the brand residing in this space," he says.

The brand is also something of a demonstration project for the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan and environmental focus championed by CEO Paul Polman.

"We really crafted this brand with that purpose at its core," Jain says.

The packaging is more colorful than the "crunchy granola brown" often found with other players in natural personal care, Jain says. Jones Knowles Ritchie handled branding and packaging design, with advertising from Vice's Carrot Creative and public relations and social-media work from Edelman.

LBP packaging is made from 100 percent recyclable materials, and is all recyclable as well, the company says. The brand is paying a self-imposed tax to offset its carbon footprint. Fragrance ingredients are all "ethically sourced, vegan and not tested on animals," the brand claims. The products have no controversial ingredients such as parabens, silicone or dyes. And a new patent-pending "fast rinse" hair conditioner is designed to wash out faster so people can take shorter showers, saving water and energy.

"Our philosophy is that we will obviously not change the world overnight," Jain says, "so we are working toward small acts, which together with our consumers over a period of time will make a big impact on the planet we live in."

At the same time, compared to the growing slew of natural brands from smaller players, Jain says a Unilever brand that can get quickly into stores such as Walmart can have a bigger impact. But LBP will eschew TV in favor of digital and social media, with a particular investment in store placement and merchandising.

"We will not be on TV for this brand, because the consumer we are targeting actually wants to have a sense of discovery and finding it for herself," Jain says. "And then it's about digital and social media. We will create a community of like-minded consumers."

Even without TV, LBP is more mass-market than some other recent Unilever startups, such as Apothecare, whose products sell for $10.99 to $12.99 vs. the $6.99 to $8.99 for LBP.

Skinsei, which creates customized skincare regimens for $55 per shipment, aims even further upscale. In an investor presentation last month, President of Global Personal Care Alan Jope described it s a beta test starting small with "minimal viable product" and room to tweak things before a broader launch. Skinsei is one project being run out of The Hub, a new Unilever "digital disruption center" in downtown Manhattan.

These are but a few of a growing slew of new Unilever brands to hit the market this year. They include Kju, a fragrance in China created by a French perfumer and Korean graphic designer in under six months; Hijab, an Indonesian hair-care brand for women who wear Muslim head coverings and based on a Russian formulation; Blow, an on-demand hair, makeup and nail service dubbed "the Uber of beauty" and funded in London by Unilever Ventures; and Impulse, a European fragrance brand created in partnership with four German and U.K. beauty bloggers.

Speaking of the last, Jope asked: "Will it be around in 10 years? Probably not. But we're doing these with business models that have positive profitability from year one."

That is to say at minimal cost, which is key to making this sudden explosion of new brands work without "distracting from the core business," Jope said.

All of this aims to counter pressure on Unilever from fragmentation of consumer segments, retail channels, media and competition," he said. "We now see this [fragmentation] as an opportunity, not a threat. The mind shift you have to make is that the notion of us winning in such an environment with a handful of global brands in a purely global portfolio is frankly far fetched."

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