She was born in Greece, is a Fulbright Scholar fluent in four languages (Of course! Bien súr! Φυσικά! Claro que sí!), and has been heading up major brands for over two decades. But now, Vasiliki Petrou, Group CEO of Unilever Prestige, is truly one of the beauty industry’s “It Women” — having created the corporation’s luxury division from scratch beginning in 2014 by systematically snatching up hot and trusted brands such as Living Proof, Tatcha, Dermalogica, Kate Somerville, Hourglass, and Ren. Find out from CEW’s latest LA event with Snapchat Beauty how Vasiliki became one of the industry’s top prestige beauty prophets, how she thinks tech and beauty mingle most beautifully, and what really is beauty’s holy grail.
As interviewed by Michele Nevitt, Snapchat Head of Beauty, Personal Care, & Health
How did you get your start with Unilever?
“I was in Greece doing my undergraduate studies in American literature and then got a Fulbright Scholarship to come to the U.S. I went to [The University of Texas at Austin] for my first master’s degree, which was in American literature and communications. After a certain point, I thought the academic world was too into lecturing for me, and I wanted to do something much more practical. I thought I should get an MBA, so I applied to business school in New York.
[At Columbia], I did my MBA in finance and marketing. From there, I was recruited by Procter & Gamble after having worked with them previously in an internship program in Geneva. I did a lot of local international roles in general management and marketing. And after 19 years in these roles, I wanted to do something different. I was searching for something much more entrepreneurial — working with a start-up or in the luxury or fashion field.
By coincidence, I ended up talking to somebody in Paris, which is essentially the center of luxury and fashion, and they said, ‘Oh my God, you have to interview with Unilever.’ I said, ‘You must be kidding me.’ They responded that I had nothing to lose.
I was put in front of the head of the beauty department at the time and he was quite disruptive, and he immediately made me an offer on the spot. I thought that was pretty crazy, you know, but it’s been an amazing experience in the sense that I was able to start [creating] a prestige role right away — and that it was a white space opportunity in the industry [back then in 2014].”
The reason we’re here today is to talk about the role that tech plays in beauty and the intersection of the two. Can you talk a little bit about that?
“I truly believe that the people and the agencies that will succeed are the ones that can converge the human factor into technology. It needs to be a balanced conversion of tech to human connection — because people are tired of talking to robots. You know, when you call customer service and nobody answers the phone, it can be a very frustrating experience. Let’s use an example with retail, like when you’re trying to get advice from an expert about how to use a product or when you’re suffering from issues like acne or eczema, and you aren’t able to connect to someone. That is a problem. Creating a connection with a virtual human, or through other automated ways that can leverage a better customer experience, can bring a lot of value.
The other thing I’m very passionate about is the role of creativity and technology, which most companies underestimate. People want to be entertained and they want to be inspired. The most important thing that we forget [in business] is what are the factors that inspire people to click? That’s why I always champion having a creative head at the table. I’m tired of creative people being on the verge of the niche of companies. The type of people that will make a dent in the future of business are the ones that recognize the power of creativity.”
Right now, the heart of creativity and all the tech tools you’re talking about seem to come down to personalization. Can you talk a bit about these types of tools and why they’re so important to you?
“The holy grail, which I don’t think anybody has achieved yet, is to create tools to personalize everything to your business’ DNA — your own kind of unique code. But it’s a bit of a nightmare to figure out. One main area of focus is on diagnostics; how to get useful information from the consumer to offer them the best regimen or ritual to make the consumer happy and resolve their beauty issues with hair or skin. The other is how to use the information to provide a personalized experience for the consumer who wants to feel like they are being heard.”
It seems now is all about the utility of augmented reality (AR). How do you think tools like AR can be integrated into the modern shopping experience?
“The storytelling of a brand has become so much more immersive and richer for the consumer to feel and get under the skin of the brand. I think that’s one. There are some impressive types of shopping experiences these days, but the balance is to make sure the experience is not just a gimmick. I don’t like gimmicks in general because I feel respectful of the consumers’ time.”
Consumers want to have confidence that this is the right product. How important is it to create an experience where consumers can virtually “try” a product before they buy, shifting the retail landscape?
“Very important. For example, one area for potential impact is fragrance. Whoever figures it out is going to be very rich because how do you communicate fragrance through the internet? I think that the shopping experience has not yet been cracked to its full potential. Post-Covid experiences have taken on new meaning because people have been locked up for so long that reaching the next frontier of tool experiences has a lot of meat to be developed and worked on.”
As part of the Snapchat tradition, we’re going to do a lightning round to get to know you better on a personal level.
Los Angeles or London?
“L.A., because of the sun.”
Last book you read?
“The Ministry for the Future. It’s a beautiful book.”
Favorite L.A. restaurant?
Advice you would give to your younger self…
“That’s a good one. I would have to say to have been more in touch with my feminine energy because I had to lean into my masculine energy to survive in the corporate world.
When I started, I would go into a room and it would be like, ‘where are the women?’ I think we still have a long way to go from breaking the glass ceiling, which is still alive and well. Using precious time to be a cookie-cutter type, pretending to be like a man, I don’t believe in it anymore. Only when we embrace our femininity and lean into our power, our gut feeling, and our intuition, can we achieve superior results.”
For more insights into the Snap x Unilever chat be sure to listen to a recording of the discussion.