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Unilever uses start-up mindset to create new brand targeting natural consumers

  • ApotheCARE Essentials, Unilever's first new brand of its kind in the last few decades, targets the growing number of consumers seeking natural beauty products.
  • A core team of about five people developed the brand in just over a year.
  • Typically, this type of innovation can take about 20 people, two to three years to complete, said Piyush Jain, Unilever's vice president of hair care.
  • Unilever and other consumer giants like Procter & Gamble have fielded criticism that their sprawling corporate structures encourage bureaucracy and hinder innovation.
Unilever's new hair care and skin cleansing brand, ApotheCARE Essentials, is bottled.
Source: Unilever
Unilever's new hair care and skin cleansing brand, ApotheCARE Essentials, is bottled.

Unilever adopted the agility of a start-up to deliver a natural, premium hair care and skin cleansing line.

ApotheCARE Essentials, Unilever's first new brand of its kind in the last few decades, targets the growing number of consumers seeking natural beauty products. Unilever tapped a core team of about five people to develop and launch the brand in just over a year.

Creating a new product typically takes about 20 people and two to three years, said Piyush Jain, Unilever's vice president of hair care and fouding member of ApotheCARE Essentials.

Unilever and other consumer giants like Procter & Gamble have fielded criticism that their sprawling corporate structures encourage bureaucracy and hinder innovation. They face pressure from smaller brands attracting consumers who crave new, natural and premium products.

"The marketplace is evolving so rapidly and there are so many different business models and new brands coming in it's exciting that we as Unilever are piloting some of the new trends and even leading the trends," Jain said.

The team analyzed Unilever's portfolio and realized its existing brands like TRESemmé and Dove weren't catering to a growing number of consumers who want natural products, said Unilever biochemist and ApotheCARE Essentials founding team member Matthew Seal. They wanted to create something that combined nature with technology.

They created the brand's 18 products using a three-step process.

First, the research and development team would choose from its six base ingredients and four fragrances. They then used a technique called phytoextraction that essentially bursts plants open like a water balloon to release desired ingredients. Then they slowly blended together the ingredients at a controlled time and temperature in a process called slow infusion.

The labels feature pictures of the base and fragrance ingredients used in the formulas inside a test tube filled with water. The design aims to highlight ApotheCARE Essentials' blending of nature and science and to attract the brand's target consumers, women who know what their look is and obsess over improving their hair and skin a little bit every day, Seal said.

"She has a reverence for technology and understands it has a role to play along with nature," he said, speaking of the target consumer. "She isn't going back to making it yourself in the kitchen and knows that isn't necessarily a solution for beauty. She believes in the scientific method."

Jain declined to say how much revenue Unilever expects the brand to generate, though he did say he expects ApotheCARE Essentials to become one of its core brands. Plus, it gives Unilever a blueprint to quickly develop other brands.

"We've obviously learned a lot in the crafting of this and we can leverage some of what we learned here," Jain said. "There will always be a combination of doing things fast and entrepreneurial and also doing things traditional to match the rigor with what we launch with the resources put behind it and testing it."

But just because Unilever now has experience creating an idea and taking it to market in a little over a year doesn't mean it will start randomly launching brands, Seal said. It will still base those decisions on what needs consumers have and how Unilever's brands address, or don't address, them.

"We'll always develop technology, and sometimes we'll get a golden egg," Seal said. "We can't always radicalize the core of our portfolio, but we'll always work to improve those brands and occasionally get something like ApotheCARE (Essentials)."

ApotheCARE Essentials products are available in select stores now and will be available in more stores and online in January.