Tips and tricks from leading corporate and emerging brands


Riley Dunn

 Brand Manager @ Unilever

The U.S. men’s grooming market currently stands at $8.9 billion and is forecasted to grow by over 7% by 2023 to $9.5 billion.

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 tended to apply 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. Solving some sticky product problems such as stick deodorants leaving an undesirable waxy residue and the gooey feel of the 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 percent 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 percent of the US category."

A more recent example of the company examining the future trends in each market surrounds 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.

Products serving the “on-the-go” market were created in a pre covid world. Covid changed the consumer’s main consideration when buying a cleaning product to 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 players’ 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 3rd 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. Engagement

Think about engagement before launching the product. 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 whilst also creating scarcity, a useful tool especially for younger cohorts. 

2. If you are not first in the category, you need to have an outstandingly unique selling point.

You need to question, 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; they democratized new way to get the product to the consumer (direct-to-consumer, DTC) at a more affordable price and a they had a subscription model.  The product didn’t change but the way the product reached the client was different and attractive. 

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 bricks and mortar 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. Messaging

Another essential factor for small brands is consistent messaging and repeatedly using that messaging across all the different channels. Remember, you need to understand the channels you choose and see what works best.  DO NOT try to make the same material work 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.