Nothing could have prepared seasoned beauty executive, Esi Eggleston Bracey, EVP and COO NA Beauty and Personal Care, Unilever, for the impact COVID-19 would have on the beauty business and the multi-billion division she oversees. And certainly nothing in her life could have prepared her for the senseless murder of George Floyd on May 25, and the subsequent global protests demanding change to eradicate systemic racism. But Esi has reacted with heart and speed and empathy. Here, she discusses how the beauty industry needs to take responsibility for the stereotypes that reinforce and perpetuate bias and racism, and how she’s balancing business in the wake of COVID-19.
I feel like I am on an emotional roller coaster. I’m outraged by yet another senseless murder and the continued oppressive effects of systemic racism in America. It’s like it never stops. On the other hand, I’m moved by the diversity of people coming together in protest against racism, and acknowledging this is an issue for humanity and America and not just for black and brown people. In my lifetime, I’ve never seen a more diverse community of people, brands, companies, leaders who are standing for change and committed to taking action against these horrific actions of hate and violence. That gives me hope.
Through the roller coaster of emotions, I feel vulnerable, and am doing my best to lead authentically, stay hyper-engaged with my team, and drive the change and impact that’s needed NOW.
We need to focus on systemic change and there is so much to do because the issues are deeply rooted in centuries of oppression and white supremacy. But the acts of violence based on race are not just for black and brown communities to address. Brands and companies can and should help. We have an opportunity now to seize the moment and commit to change.
We must do more within our own ecosystems to ensure we are helping tackle the root causes of social injustice. We need to focus on areas of social justice that include economic equality, education, wellness and health, the ability to vote, safety and addressing institutional biases and negative perceptions. Within our industry we can reflect on and take responsibility for the stereotypes we reinforce that perpetuate bias and racism.
At Unilever, we are working to ensure our workforce better reflects the communities we serve, we’re using our economic power for good by continuing to increase our spend with minority-owned businesses, and we uphold a zero-tolerance policy on intolerance – both among Unilever employees and the suppliers, customers and partners that work with us. We will also add our voice and influence to advocate for fair and safe access to voting this November.
These are unprecedented times and we understand that people need access to essential supplies like hand soap, food and household cleaning products. Our factories have shifted to working around the clock to meet this uptick in demand and produce the products people need. We have ramped up production and we are focused on making sure we keep shelves stocked with our retail partners.
We have also pivoted plans where necessary to address shifting demand, especially as it relates to affordability and hand hygiene and our brands are innovating to meet these needs. For example, Suave just started manufacturing hand sanitizer, and as a result, $1.2 million worth of the products will be donated through Direct Relief and it will also be sold in retail.
Additionally, as women with textured hair adapt to doing their hair from home, we’re working to meet their needs. Our Dove, Shea Moisture and Suave brands, for example, are introducing a social support system to offer expert advice about caring for textured and curly hair.
Managing people’s capacity is most important – their physical, mental and emotional capacity. People are taking care of loved ones and themselves, and so it’s been important that we give our teams the space they need to navigate.
Staying in touch and connected has been key. We have regular town halls where we share business updates and we celebrate our success and the great work being done. We also want people to be able to ask what’s on their mind. Much of the meetings are reserved for people to be able to ask questions anonymously – we want to be as candid as possible and we want people to be able to share what is on their minds.
As the situation evolves, we’re learning to manage the agility and uncertainty by keeping teams focused on what they can control and, at the same time, laying out some concrete scenarios we can plan against. We need to manage and be OK with the uncertainty.
We’ll absolutely see the [retail] space evolve in certain ways. We’re already seeing an increase in beauty and wellness as part of mental and physical wellbeing. People are experimenting with beauty at home and they are looking for distractions, an escape – and they are open to more elaborate routines.
I’m confident DIY habits will persist post-quarantine for convenience, affordability and for people who have discovered new skills. There are a range of ways our products can help people with DIY, and there will be many people who will be grateful for the opportunity to return to their former beauty routines–like me, I can’t wait to see my stylist. Either way, we’re exploring formats to address evolving needs.
We were already seeing a shift to e-commerce and this is accelerating dramatically. This shift will have a ripple effect – we’ll see new formats and new ways to interact to address growing interest in contactless and convenient shopping. People are increasingly looking for one-stop shopping which has translated into more beauty purchases at neighborhood stores and grocery.
We know social sustainability and meeting the needs of our polycultural consumers will be of continued importance and we are working with speed to be of service to people, communities, and the planet.
I’ve really thought about how important it is that Unilever is purpose driven at this time – it really has purpose at its core. This month we celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan [USLP]. It helped remind us of how our commitment to sustainability has strengthened our business, even in areas we may have fell short but learned valuable lessons.
Prior to COVID-19, people were looking for companies and brands to do more than simply sell them a great product. They expected brands to be responsible, aware and share their values. We see this is true now more than ever. Brands have a vital role to play in this crisis – and people are looking to brands to use all of their resources and creativity to make a difference. Unilever was committed to being of service before COVID-19, and we’ll continue to meet the needs of our consumers as they evolve throughout this pandemic.
So much has changed, and the current situation is so dynamic, but something that has been our constant at Unilever is our commitment to be of service. We often talk about our role in being of service to people, communities, and the planet…and the need for this is more important than ever before. As people’s needs evolve throughout the crisis, we’ll work to meet those needs whether that be through new projects, innovations or otherwise.
At a time when many of our company’s products are in high demand, Unilever’s brands have the responsibility to act and we are in the unique position to give back. We’ve been able to put a number of efforts in place quickly. For example, we launched United for America – Unilever’s initiative to deliver food, medical supplies, hygiene products, and services to support organizations on the front lines of this crisis. Unilever had its first annual Day of Service on May 21 where it donated the equivalent of one day’s worth of the products produced at our US factories to Feeding America and Direct Relief.
DIY personal care has been my biggest area of experimentation. I’ve gotten better at doing my own nails and my hair and makeup for virtual events. But I miss my hairstylist – not just for her talent, but also for that connection we have, which I know many women can relate to.
The other area is related to my kids and distance learning at home. I’ve had to get up to speed on different apps and shared systems – I’m learning something new every day.
My daughter mentioned something to me that really resonated – I miss chance encounters. The small talk and interaction you have running into people as you go about your day. Even more of our time now is planned and deliberate – I miss the natural places life takes you that you don’t plan.