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Finding Success with Founder-Led Brands – WWD

Vasiliki Petrou, Group CEO of Unilever Prestige, launched the Unilever Prestige portfolio in 2014 with a clear vision and strategy: only founder-led brands would be considered, they had to be purpose-driven, and have long-term staying power on a global scale.

In the first year, Petrou focused on skincare and brought REN, Dermalogica, Kate Somerville and Murad into the portfolio. Three years later, she added Living Proof and Hourglass to the elite group. In 2019, Garancia and Tatcha were acquired, and the portfolio’s most recent acquisition, Paula’s Choice, was added in 2021.

Petrou’s innovative vision and strategy set the stage for a new standard for beauty portfolios in the industry. Last year, the founder-led brands in the Unilever Prestige stable delivered double-digit growth.

In this special feature, Fairchild Studio asked Petrou to share insights on her unique leadership style, creating a positive corporate culture, what she looks for when acquiring a founder-led brand, and how she grew the portfolio into the global entity that it is today. .

Fairchild Studio: How would you describe your leadership style, and what reports it? What inspires you as a leader?

Vasiliki Petrou: As a leader, it is important to always keep your mind open because you never know where inspiration will come from. With the right mindset, you find beauty and opportunity in every situation. Over time I have taught myself to read between the lines and see the things that others miss.

I encourage teams to embrace new ideas and to keep an eye on what is at the forefront. I always say, “Act first, apologize later” and have found this approach gives me room to explore and test the edge of the market — even if I know that only 1 out of 10 will succeed.

I take my inspiration from everything. I’m a big lover of art. I go to museums, I listen to all kinds of music, I have two kids who are teenagers so I’m able to stay close to next-generation trends. I keep myself informed of popular culture and have my ear to the ground always.

Fairchild Studios: How would you describe the growth arc of Unilever Prestige under your leadership? What was your initial vision and how has this informed its global success?

VP: When we started in 2014, we saw this white space in the market, a gap, in terms of luxury brands that were anchored in purpose. Our brands are what I call modern luxury powerhouses with purposeful missions. Consumers have very high expectations — they must have great products and great results. That is imperative. But they also want to be contributing to something bigger, and because of that each Unilever Prestige brand has a clearly defined social impact mission and activations.

And while building the portfolio’s growth strategy, there were two key things I was passionate about, and remain passionate about to this day: authenticity and speed.

I also strongly believe in abandoning hierarchy – it is important that we respect each brand’s POV and not mandate actions. For all of us, our mission is about making an impact on the business, society, and people. This is what really matters.

I’m proud of the business model we have created, with a unique brand-first approach where there is no one size fits all. This model allows us to act fast, react to evolving landscapes and experiment, test and innovate. The good thing about starting from scratch is that I was not restricted by anything in the past. I’m obsessed with playing to the future and being ahead of the curve, and this business model is a completely new way of running luxury companies, enabling our brands to thrive.

Fairchild Studio: And what about brands, and how brands relate to consumers?

VP: Taking a brand-centric approach to integration is crucial. At the end of the day consumers buy brands, not warehouses. Our brands stay 100% at the heart of a bespoke integration plan. Typically, larger corporations adopt a hard integration model – in all industries, not just beauty. That can be tough for companies who have just been acquired. Integration done in a hard way can lower morale, which, in turn, affects brand love, consumer perception and performance.

In the early days of Unilever Prestige, we really worked hard to create a model that would ensure our new partners felt looked after and valued as we integrated. We see these relationships as partnerships with shared values, and not simply acquisitions.

We are proud of our track record of growing brands, often ahead of target. Last year was a record-breaking year with all nine of our brands delivering double-digit growth. Our financial expectations for business growth opportunities are also realistic as we build brand equity rather than destroy it. Success for us is longevity versus short-term growth and gains. We plan for future-ready brands that will be around in 20-, 30-, or 50-years’ time.

Fairchild Studio: What are some of the qualities that you look for in the leaders of brands that Unilever Prestige acquires?

VP: I always look for strong brands with passionate founders. A strong brand, for me, is a brand that has its own concept and is globally relevant in a high-growth space.

When I look at a brand, I ask, “Is it going to be around in 15 years? Is it differentiated enough? Does it have a transformational product benefit? And of course, does it have a mission?”

Of course, after we form a partnership with a brand, we work with the founders and the leadership teams helping them by bringing inspiration and resources into the mix, especially around where the future is, how to scale, and get to the future, faster .

And I’m humbled to work with a lot of legends and industry disruptors, like Jane Wurwand of Dermalogica. Carisa Janes of Hourglass. Vicky Tsai of Thatcha. Kate Somerville and Dr. Murad. And Paula of Paula’s Choice. The list is long.

Fairchild Studio: How would you describe Unilever Prestige’s corporate culture and the role of the brand founders? Is it entrepreneurial?

VP: This division was built from scratch only eight years ago, operating under an independent business unit focused solely on the luxury channel. The prestige portfolio also has a truly entrepreneurial spirit that I am proud of. We do not have a standardized cookie cutter approach to running the businesses and I think that is what makes us so unique.

As for our brand founders – they are the soul of the portfolio’s culture – and you never remove the soul from a brand.

Ultimately, we operate under the idea that a founder has created something incredibly precious. The process of acquiring founder-led brands requires a level of sensitivity in our culture. During the early stages of an acquisition, we want founders to know they have found a safe space for the next phase of a brands journey. They are our compass.

I’ve always actively searched for the brands where the founders will stay deeply intertwined in the business. It’s so important that we work with founders who really care about being involved in the growth of the brand.

Fairchild Studio: From the beginning you’ve talked about building technology-driven beauty companies, can you tell us about that?

VP: We approach everything with a technology first mindset. It is a journey, and one that is moving at lightning speed, but as a portfolio we have led the way in several first-to-market or first-to-industry technologies.

Dermalogica recently developed a virtual human, which we named Natalia, to deliver cutting edge training for therapists as well as a virtual reality metaverse store. The social impact program we created in partnership with WWD last year, Project Connect, also looked at scaling tech driven beauty the brands and companies of the future that bridged consumer needs with tech innovation.

This is an exciting time to be in the luxury beauty space. There’s so much going on, and more technology, innovation, and purpose-driven brands to come.

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