Tips and tricks from leading corporate and emerging brands


Riley Dunn

 Brand Manager @ Unilever

An image of five deodorant products.

The U.S. men’s grooming market currently stands at $8.9 billion and is forecasted to grow by over 7% to $9.5 billion by 2023. We wanted to understand how the corporate players have maintained their market-leading positioning, and how emerging brands today have disrupted the market and pushed the deodorant segment forward. Who better to have the conversation with than Riley Dunn?

Riley has spent the past decade at Unilever, a multinational consumer goods company founded in the U.K. in 1929. During his time at Unilever, Riley has worked on the two largest men’s grooming brands in the portfolio, AXE and Dove Men +Care, within the two largest categories, Deodorants and Skin Cleansing.

When trying to understand how the corporate players have maintained their market-leading positioning, Unilever itself is an excellent place to start. 

Current stats about the company:

• 2.5 billion people use their products each day
• 400+ Unilever brands sold worldwide
• 190 Country markets
• €52 billion 2019 turnover

Unilever sets their portfolio companies up for success. Their global presence and R&D facilities, enable their team to examine, predict, and even create future trends - and then take these trends across borders. 

What does this look like in practice? In 2015, men worldwide generally used spray deodorant, except in the U.S., where the stick deodorant was king. Being the global leader in deodorant and antiperspirant innovation, Unilever decided that the spray application method could also be a hit in the U.S. market, if re-developed and branded correctly. The team adapted all the ranges that sat in the Unilever portfolio to aerosol application, including solving some sticky product problems, such as the waxy residue from stick deodorants and the gooey feel of water-based gel formulas. Unilever came up with and coined the phrase “dry spray.” This habit-changing launch was the biggest in the beauty and personal care space that the U.S. had ever seen. Today, aerosol deodorant makes up over 10% of the US category.

"This habit-changing launch was the biggest in the beauty and personal care space that the U.S. had ever seen. Today, aerosol deodorant makes up over 10% of the US category."

A more recent example of the company examining the future trends in each market can be seen in the idea of “living well on the go.” Consumers today expect hyper-convenience. If a product or service isn’t easy to use, it is simply not worth the time investment. To meet the ever-changing needs of shoppers, Unilever expanded their portfolio to include deodorant in wipe form, deodorant in a smaller-sized bottle but with more power per spay, and deodorants with essential oils, formulated without aluminium, parabens, or dyes.

An image of three packs of deodorant wipes.

However, products serving the “on-the-go” market were created in a pre-Covid world. The pandemic influenced the consumer’s main consideration when buying a cleaning product: its ability to kill germs. Before Covid, this had not even factored into the selling points for this sector. Moreover, Covid required a change in marketing for the brands. Adverts featuring people coming home from work, in a crowd, or on a plane were no longer relevant, and more natural scenarios at home became the new normal for campaigns. 

Although having a multinational company behind the brand is a big reason for the corporate player's success, there are other contributing factors. The larger companies tend to buy out the smaller ones to absorb any competition. Manufacturing products is a further barrier to entry. In a world where differentiated product is a route to disruption, it is incredibly challenging to get third party manufacturers to sign off on exclusive rights to any formula implemented.

However, Riley thinks that the market will see more disruption from smaller players. He believes it starts with fulfilling the minimum criteria - a great product at a good price - but from there, the list of tips and tricks to success is endless. 

1. Pre-Launch Engagement

Before even launching the product, think about engagement. Building hype and interest before you have your product out the door means you have customers waiting with bated breath to get their hands on your product. Picture the lines around the Apple stores close to the release of a new iPhone and how Sony’s PS5 sold out globally before its release.

A great way to do this is by creating a waitlist for the product and offering incentives to potential customers to share your pre-launch campaign with their friends, family, acquaintances, followers, or anyone, really! This model first engages interested users and makes them feel ahead of the curve, while also creating scarcity, a useful tool, especially for younger cohorts. 

2. Unique Selling Point

if you are not first in the category, you need to have an outstandingly unique selling point. Ask yourself: "How do we take this product and do something different with it?" For example, when Dollar Shave Club disrupted the men’s grooming market, they didn’t create a new product. Rather, they democratized a new way to get the product to the consumer (direct-to-consumer, DTC) at a more affordable price using a subscription model.  The product didn’t change, but the way the product reached the client was different and attractive. 

A image of the Dollar Shave Club website open on an iPad and razor in the package.

However, what was unique in 2011, when the Dollar Shave Club was founded, isn’t unique today. In fact, the model, which bypasses bricks-and-mortar shops and retailers, is increasingly blurry. During the pandemic, the DTC selling space became much more crowded, as even traditional companies either went online or widened their presence.  The cost to acquire customers online has become prohibitively high. 

Selling products in a brick-and-mortar store has become a more appealing option for small companies looking to brand build affinity.  Shops hold a unique value that you cannot get when your only presence is online.

“Brick-and-mortar stores are brand-building locations; they need to be in high-traffic, high-density markets of the target consumer to be able to build that brand affinity and that brand experience. They’re billboards.” - Michael Brown, a partner in the consumer practice at Kearney

3. Consistent Messaging

Another essential factor for small brands is repeatedly using consistent messaging across all  channels. Remember, you need to understand the channels you choose and see what works best, and you cannot use the same material across all of them; what works on TikTok won’t work on LinkedIn. Moreover, when thinking about targeting your consumer, don’t only think about gender, age, and ethnicity. Think about life events. A new father will want different products today than those he wanted in his late teens or early twenties.

Riley also mentions the importance of limiting barriers to entry for purchase. He advises companies to make the checkout experience as smooth as possible and utilize easy payment platforms such as Google Wallet and Apple Pay. 

So whether you are online, in shops, or hybrid, there are certain elements that Riley and Unilever consider every day, and you should too.

  • Engagement – the earlier, the better; the more rewarding, the more appealing.
  • Uniqueness – find your niche or the product element that will make you stand out – even in a crowded space. What trends can inform your product development from other categories? Other geographies?
  • Messaging – Make and keep it engaging, consistent, and repeat it as often as you can.