The Key Element of brand growth is the purpose

Victor Hugo, Jr. is the Global Marketing Director of Axe — one of Unilever’s most beloved & bejewelled billion Euro brands. In this interview for LCM, Victor speaks about the importance of purpose as a brand’s competitive edge and shares the journey of Axe as it aims to help men find their magic amidst masculinity’s redefinition in today’s world.


What’s your most vivid memory?

Falling in love. I consider myself to be quite a romantic, a poet. Perhaps by virtue of the name.

If you could change something about yourself, what would it be?

My constant pursuit of perfection.

If you could have any other profession, what would it be?

A children’s swimming instructor. I swam competitively for my country and after that realised the joy of teaching kids in the pool.  It was a fulfilling and enriching experience – which I am reliving again in greater heights as I now teach my children.

Where’s your favourite place?

I’d say home but it’s more than just the place, it’s the company of my wife, my daughter and my son. 

What do you fear most?  

Darkness and negativity in the world.

What do you cherish the most?  

Definitely love, positivity, elation and inspiration.
In marketing, brands that can make you feel these emotions have an edge.

What would you like people to learn from you?

Recognising and internalising that your actions have an impact on the world around you and in the time ahead.

In The Beginning 

Describe your personal marketing journey; where did it begin and where did you go from there?

My first marketing encounter came in Kindergarten. I was 4 years old and I learned the principles of trial & repeat.  The brand: me. I applied for one of the top schools in my country and apparently, I didn’t do so well. I guess I just wasn’t a ‘good tester’ nor interviewee.  Two weeks later, I returned with an Uncle, (who also happens to be a big benefactor of the school) and I watched as he marketed me to the application board.  Thankfully, this got me in.  At the end of that school year, I actually won the award for ‘General Excellence’, which they give to the top student.  It was then that I experienced the value of generating ‘trial through product sampling.’ Repeat always comes if the brand or product is in check. At University, I majored in Business Administration and was drawn to a marketing company called Unilever through a campus recruitment program they called ‘Business Week'. They hosted a series of interviews and panel applications all over the country.  From thousands, they select forty students to join a weeklong program of marketing induction and business simulation.  At the end of the program, they make job offers to a select few.

What drew you to Unilever in particular?

 Primarily, the company’s sense of purpose. Unilever began in the 19th Century because William Lever realised that people were dying in the UK from bacterial diseases caused by the lack of hygiene. He wanted to do something about it so he founded the company and started with a soap brand called Sunlight.  Coming from heritage like that, I still see Unilever today with the same drive to make a difference in society. 

 I’m drawn to the fact that it’s an organisation fueled by marketing excellence but equally as important for me is their humanity.  Unilever’s regard and respect for people, their thrust for diversity, their belief in teams, in collaboration, in collective intelligence are all inspiring.  They espoused principles around ‘Balanced Life’ and ‘Wellbeing’ as early as when I joined them and long before all the buzz about it now.  It’s a company with heart that’s actually doing really well in the marketplace.

What roles and responsibilities have you experienced within the company?

 I joined Unilever Philippines in 2002, so to date, my story with them spans 14 years, 5 countries, 3 brands, 2 children, and 1 love.  I met my wife in Unilever - I guess you could say we were ‘Unilovers’ -  so my personal and professional lives are quite intrinsically linked. My daughter was born in New York while I was stationed there, then my son was born in London whilst on assignment here.

I came in as a management trainee rotating through HR, Customer Development, Supply Chain and Management Accounting. It was great as I got see all the cogs of how the company worked.  Thereafter, I was confirmed as Assistant Brand Manager for Sunsilk Philippines and after nearly two years, moved to Bangkok, Thailand in 2005 as a Regional Brand Manager for Clear (Anti-Dandruff).  At the time I joined, the brand was worth €130million and present in 6 markets.  When I left it as Global Brand Manager in 2011 from Singapore, it was already a €600million brand with presence in nearly 50 markets.

After Clear, work took me to the US when I accepted the role of Regional Brand Director for Axe Hair.  The success of the Axe styling business and its journey to men’s market leadership in the US paved the way for my role here in London as Global Brand Director.

It’s an organisation fueled by marketing excellence but equally as important for me is their humanity.

Going Live

In your experience, what do you consider the key elements of brand growth?

Purpose. I’d say brand growth and social good are inseparable now. There are brands that drive themselves for profit and enterprise, and there are brands that do that and change the world. Consumers are a lot more savvy today, they are much more critical of what brands do and how they do it so purpose essentially becomes a competitive edge.

 Another key element is the ability for brands to find an alchemy between business logic and marketing magic. It’s the power to engage the mind whilst also allowing your consumers to feel.

 Most importantly, brand growth comes from deep consumer intimacy.  It’s a connection that enables you to know what they want and anticipate what they need, even before they realise it.  As Henry Ford of Ford Motors once said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses...”  Consumer knowledge that generates true, meaningful, actionable connections with them is what’s key.  

What role do you see experiences and events playing in the brand?

In Maya Angelou’s words “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  Experiences enable a more meaningful, more memorable interaction with your brand. When you feel something from the brand, it simply establishes a stronger tie.  

Experience is a critical part of our brand journey — now more than ever because Axe is famous for fabulous fragrances.  As we progress into grooming with products like Axe Styling, having consumers experience the change and actually feel the difference and superiority of our hair technology will help them better understand the evolution in our brand offer.  Unilever is the world’s styling market leader so Axe Styling is powered by only the best of what we have.

As part of having to establish Axe’s expertise in hair & styling, we’re using the power of brand experience at London’s fashion scene — we have hired The London Barber™ as our Global Creative Hair Styling Director and we’ve collaborated with fashion designers, Agi&Sam (Paul Smith’s favourite dynamic duo and GQ’s Breakthrough Fashion Designers for 2014) in the recent London Collections Men for SS17.  Their collection was themed ‘The Modern House Husband’ – very much in line with our thrust for progressive masculinity.

What are the challenges of driving a truly global brand?

Agility. Rapidly scaling up and activating ideas globally. Launching a brand in one market and within six months, launching that same initiative in 50 — just like we’ve done so on Clear.  

Consistency. Ensuring that the brand manifests itself and connects with consumers the same meaningful way across various parts of the world and amidst different cultural contexts.

Standardising Operational Excellence. Building high-calibre talent across global brand communities that all share the same values & culture.  When the cast is right, all the brand operational functions come easy.

How do you use experience to enhance your brand community?

We have a global forum every year where we bring the whole brand community together and take them through a weeklong immersion in youth culture.  It’s important for a business like Axe to have its people live and breathe the brand.  When they actually experience youth culture, they understand it more.  

Do you think there’s rich marketing territory that you haven't explored?

Some say ‘data is the new oil’ — it is the source of corporate energy and differentiation.  Rich marketing territory lies in the ability of Axe to process and understand millennial data at scale. I reflect upon how we can utilise technology and master the art of metamorphosis in order to evolve with effectiveness at the speed at which our consumers are changing these days. 

Key element is the ability for brands to find an alchemy between business logic and marketing magic.

Axe Me Anything

What first attracted you to the Axe brand?

The hard facts of Axe are hard to ignore — It’s a €2.4billion brand present in over 75 countries globally. We sell 15 Axe products every second, with nearly 200 million active consumers in any given year.  For 33 years, it’s entertained, empowered, and inspired.

 I’m attracted to the fact that it’s a brand with scale that’s beloved by many and with that, comes enough brand power, voltage, and influence to be able to do something of significance and meaning for consumers. You do something right, and it will have an impact on the world.

What do you consider your biggest challenges?

For a youth brand like Axe that is linked to the ever-changing, fast-evolving millennial consumer, we need to remind ourselves that cool brands don’t stay hot automatically.  It takes effort to remain relevant. One of the things that we’ve realised is that the youth population today gets older, younger.  With open exposure to limitless forms of media, the youth of today matures more quickly than ever before.  Our challenge is to be able to remain relevant to them as they evolve and progress. 

What is the particular strategic thought that drives the Axe brand?

Axe is a brand that’s helped guys look, smell, & feel more attractive about themselves.  This year, we sharpen its position by evolving the brand along with our maturing consumer – we are less about primal masculinity and more about progressive masculinity; we are less about conquest and more about connection.  We move away from simply focusing on the ‘magic in the can’ and move towards highlighting the ‘magic in you.’

More than a year’s campaign, it’s a vision for how Axe can do more good for young guys all over the world.   We believe that the most attractive person a man can be is himself — his strengths, his weaknesses, his individuality and most of all how he expresses it.   Despite that, a lot of guys don't feel comfortable being themselves because they’re afraid of what people will say.  Of being labelled. Of embarrassment.  Afraid that what’s unique about them isn’t considered attractive or acceptable…   We want to change that.

What’s the relationship between changing societal attitudes and the brand?

Masculinity today is plagued with a tyrannical burden of labels and stereotypes. There is a lot of pressure around what ‘real men’ ought to be and do and this isn’t making it easy for guys today. 

The genesis of this brand evolution comes from nearly 4,000 consumer interactions all around the world.  Through them, we have learned that it is time to stop telling guys to be a man or to man-up.  When men are truly free to simply be themselves, they are in their most attractive state.   Individuality is his new sexy. He should be free to embrace it, express it, and in so doing subsequently be the best version of himself.

What have been Axe’s marketing high points so far?

The ‘Axe Effect’ undoubtedly. It was born out of a very specific culture of a very specific time. It celebrated the fun between men and women in surprising and irreverent ways.  Through it, we built a super brand with some of the most famous and iconic advertising, loved by consumers and opinion formers. 

Another high point is the journey we are embarking on now with Find Your Magic.  Whilst it is only the beginning, business results are validating a lot of our consumer learning.  

What’s does the future look like for Axe?

We aspire to be a €3.5Billion retail brand by 2020.  More than financial ambitions however, the future of Axe lies in having our new brand idea ‘Find Your Magic’ act as an enabler to help progress masculinity into a new era.  

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