Like other big beauty brands, Unilever faces growing competition from startups with understated packaging, lofty prices and backing from social-media influencers. So the beauty giant set out to beat them by joining them – sort of – by soft launching Evaus haircare products through a handful of emerging beauty and fashion bloggers.
Evaus is Suave spelled backward. And the stuff in the drab, minimalist packaging was the same as what Unilever sells at Walmart. But the group of influencers tapped in a campaign from Vice's digital agency Carrot, which began working with Suave last year, didn't know that. Carrot let these influencers try Evaus products for about two weeks, then invited them to a studio to reveal the truth. They were, of course, shocked to discover they had been using a mass-market brand they and their stylists had turned their noses up at.
"I used it for 10 days," said Kathleen Harper (@katsfashionfix) in the video, before the reveal. "I would say it was a game changer." She adds that her stylist never recommends anything sold in a drug store.
"It's edgy. It's modern. It's sleek," noted Viannie Bell (@sogrittyprestige), another fashion blogger.
"We found seven of 10 women think higher-priced brands are more trustworthy," said Jen Bremner, Unilever marketing director on 80-year-old Suave. "That really was the inspiration. We wanted to peel back the labels and convert the skeptics."
No influencers were harmed in the making of this video, said Bremner, who said all were good sports about the trick.
Unilever's survey research also found 90% of millennial women would buy lower-priced haircare products if they didn't have to sacrifice quality. So Suave is linking the video to a PR campaign from Edelman offering financial advice to millennials on saving money, including, of course, buying cheaper yet effective shampoo.
Suave is near the bottom rungs of a tall price ladder in haircare. Even its affordably-priced sibling, faster-growing Tresemme, is priced slightly higher in some cases, and other Unilever offerings such as Dove, Clear, Tigi, Bed Head and Living Proof occupy higher rungs. The last, packaged in understated style not unlike Evaus, sells at $59 for a 24-ounce bottle on Ulta.com, or around 10 times the price of Suave per ounce at Walmart. So isn't Bremner concerned she'll cannibalize the homegrown competition?
"We're a brand designed for a different purpose" than those other Unilever brands, she said. "We're not overly concerned."
Carrot created Evaus with stock packaging, Bremner said. "It really didn't take very long." So wasn't she tempted to just keep pushing it out of the plant at $20 a bottle and reaping those hefty margins?
"We really thought why bother?" she said. "We wanted the takeaway to be that premium prices don't dictate what the product can do for you."
Of course, besides being more expensive, Evaus has another edge on Suave – novelty. A tracking survey by online polling firm CivicScience finds brand loyalty continues to slip among millennials, 78% of whom said last quarter they tend to be at least somewhat loyal to their favorite brands, down from 84% three years ago, and 12 points below the loyalty rate for baby boomers.