Rahul Sachitanand
May 22, 2022

Unilever's Samir Singh: Sustainability shouldn't burden consumers with guilt or expense

In his first interview since becoming Unilever's global personal care CMO, he details how the consumer goods giant is evolving hygiene products into wellness products and is embedding sustainability in its brands while facing growing local competition.

Unilever's Samir Singh: Sustainability shouldn't burden consumers with guilt or expense

With the world emerging unevenly from a pandemic, several Covid-driven habits are fading, with consumer goods giants racing to keep pace with changing consumer habits yet again. This is especially so with the firm’s personal care business, where brands such as Lifebuoy profited from a zealous focus on hygiene in this time, only to now see some of these gains fade.

The newly installed global CMO of the personal care unit, Samir Singh, is acutely aware of this shift having previously steered the fortunes of brands such as Lifebuoy and Dove, as EVP of Skin Cleansing and Oral Care for the firm. In a post-Covid world, consumers are looking for products and solutions that go beyond hygiene.

Singh’s new role is part of a wider reorganisation at Unilever into key distinct business groups: Beauty & Wellbeing, Personal Care, Home Care, Nutrition, and Ice Cream. Prior to taking up this role, Singh oversaw around 25 brands amounting to US$10 billion in revenue.

While he's worked with many of the personal brands in his new portfolio before, his remit is now much wider. An added challenge is that the personal care business is in transition. “I think going forward, what you will see is an evolution of the trends that started with hygiene, but will now get more into skin health, and actually evolve, finally, into wellness,” he told Campaign Asia-Pacific.  “And all three things will happen at the same time.” The surge in business from hand washing and sanitising has faded and the firm is now looking to replace some of this dip with a greater focus on skin health and wellness.

At Unilever, this move is called 'skinification'—where consumers want the same skincare for their body as for their face. Singh says consumers are asking for popular ingredients such as niacinamide and hyaluronic acid and want these for their bodies (as for their faces). For example, Dove is taking on this trend by offering a range of shower gels with ingredients from its skincare labels, which it claims provide skin benefits: extra moisture, against acne, and better skin. Dove, which is a mass market brand, is bringing together therapeutic efficacy with skincare in its shower gels, making previously premium capabilities and chemicals more accessible, Singh explains.

Find Your Happy Place

As Singh grows his brands beyond a pure focus on hygiene, he says wellness is another priority. In the US, Unilever has introduced two new bath and body brands (Find Your Happy Place and Beloved) in exclusive partnerships with Walmart and Target. Meanwhile in Asia, the Lux brand has been expanded to include sensory products like bath bombs, candles, scrubs, and shower oils.

Differentiation by market and brand

As Singh seeks to find new personal care business-growth drivers, varying consumer habits across Unilever's vast portfolio of brands and markets present a challenge. While consumers in developed markets such as the US have emerged from the pandemic and have returned to pre-Covid personal care purchasing, APAC consumers continue to hold onto more pandemic-driven habits.

As a CMO, Singh faces the challenge of developing market-specific strategies for individual markets, while keeping Unilever’s overall brand ethos intact. “One can’t generalise too much,” he contends. “If you look at everything in a fragmented manner, it isn’t helping either.”

As a result, Singh plans to continue to balance his business’ shift from a zealous focus on hygiene, while steering brands towards broader wellness attributes, but has also positioned brands such as Lifebuoy and Pepsodent as service providers, complemented with new popular service offerings like tele-doctor and dentist consultations. In the case of latter, a brand-sponsored tele-dentist push in Southeast Asia saw as many as 10 million consumers sign up to participate.

While brands such as Lifebuoy found fresh purpose in the pandemic, Singh and his team had to work harder to repurpose brands such as Axe and Lux in a new direction, as the worst of the pandemic receded. “They are non-typical hygiene brands and over the past two years, we gave them a lot of attention,” Singh says.

For example, Unilever re-purposed Axe, bringing back its Axe Effect tagline to try to make the brand appeal to Gen Z consumers. 

Innovation, sustainability and future growth

As Singh looks ahead to new growth areas, he says the fields of innovation and sustainability will go hand-in-hand to drive the personal care business forward. He points to Lifebuoy’s move to use the skin’s peptides to deliver anti-bacterial solutions for a longer period, Lux’s claim to provide lasting fragrance (Unilever says for 24 hours) from the time of wash off and similarly Rexona providing 72-hour "protection” from sweat, as examples of this ongoing product innovation.

Elsewhere, the personal care CMO is also keen to break down some stereotypes around sustainability in his business and show it isn’t a priority solely for premium brands. “We (marketers) have made sustainability into one of those burdens that consumers have to feel guilty about or pay extra for,” he says.

But Singh argues sustainability initiatives are and will be playing a key role across the personal care business and proffers some examples. Dove’s refillable aluminum bottles, more durable and environmentally friendly than plastic options, are one example.

Lifebuoy’s Powder to Liquid handwash with a little added water, is yet another, proving cheaper and greener than previous offerings. “For Lifebuoy, penetration in its category will be no more than 30-40%, so there is plenty of headroom for growth,” Singh says. “Unless you innovate you will die.”

But existential threats to the personal care business wouldn’t just come from being innovation laggards, but could also come from feisty D2C brands or strong local rivals eating into market share. Here, Singh is more concerned about one over the other. “Despite the noise, D2C brands have made no impact on market  share charts in the personal care business,” he contends. “You will hear a lot about them for the first six months to a year, (then) they will peak and then in two or three years, they tend to disappear.”

Instead, it is strong homegrown local brands that worry Singh more. He points out that across categories ranging from deodorants to skin care and across markets ranging from India to Indonesia, global companies have felt local threats to their global brands. These brands have been able to compete on price, innovation, distribution and brand recall. “In personal care, we respect what local agile competitors bring to the table in markets such as China, Indonesia (and) India,” he admits.

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