Innovating for Generation Alpha: Q&A with a Unilever R&D expert

By Kirsty Doolan

- Last updated on GMT

Samaras said that Unilever R&D has around 12,000 microbiome samples from consumers of all ages, from all over the world, to get the fullest understanding of the skin
Samaras said that Unilever R&D has around 12,000 microbiome samples from consumers of all ages, from all over the world, to get the fullest understanding of the skin

Related tags Generation Z Marketing Cosmetics Skin care Social media Unilever R&D

While the ‘tweens in Sephora’ headlines have raised a lot of eyebrows and some deeper concerns, it’s clear that Generation Alpha has a thirst for beauty products based on science and can potentially alter the future industry landscape.

As part of our Beauty Forward digital summit, we spoke to Sam Samaras, who is global senior VP of science and technology, for beauty and wellbeing R&D at Unilever, about the needs of the next generation beauty consumer (AKA Generation Alpha) and what the multinational is now prioritising in terms of future R&D...

You can also watch the full interview, plus more interviews with key industry experts by registering here.

Cosmetics Design Europe (CDE): What is Unilever's beauty and wellbeing division currently prioritising in terms of R&D for the next generation of beauty consumers: AKA Generation Alpha?

Sam Samaras (SS): We are really centred around the focus of purpose, science and desire. And of course, right there in the middle of that is science. We are very focused on understanding the scientific drivers behind consumers unmet needs, in the beauty and wellbeing space, because more and more today, consumers of all ages – including young consumers – are interested in science-based solutions that really drive the differences that they're looking for in their beauty products.

So, whether this is looking at acne, how to achieve beautiful, smooth skin, or looking at sun protection, this is what we're really focused on for the future.

And if we think about the idea of how fast science is moving now, compared to what it was 15 or 20 years ago, and the advent of biology and the ability to measure things we couldn't measure before, we're really at a tipping point in terms of being able to understand these things in a way we really never could before.

CDE: How do you think the younger generation that's coming through now (Generation Alpha) will differ to previous generations in terms of attitudes towards beauty and personal care products?

SS: I have two generation alpha children living in my house right now, so I can totally relate to this.

We have to remember that these consumers were born into the social media age; they've never lived in a place where they didn't have access to social media. So, they are always thirsty for knowledge in a way that generations before weren't, and so what they're really looking for is trusted, authentic, and meaningful-to-them solutions.

By providing the science, this is how this generation is going to be different, but really everybody wants a product that genuinely works, that's desirable and beautiful and makes you feel good about yourself.

I just think today's young consumer has so much more access to the information than we did. So, they can make much more purposeful choices that are meaningful to them.

And another way I think it’s going to be different is that the meaning of beauty is moving from something more superficial to something much more about ‘who I am’; ‘the expression of who I am’ and ‘I'm searching to find out who I am’. And so, ‘I'm using all of this influence around me to sort of create who I am’ in a much, I think, more nuanced way than we did when we were kids.  

I can observe it in my daughter and in her friendship group. I think that access to social media gives them the opportunity to really play around with ‘who do I want to be?’ and ‘how do I want to be that?’ as well as more access to products.

At Unilever we’re now really looking at understanding many different, diverse skin types. For example, we're running clinical studies in a couple of different places around the world. For example to really understand foundational differences in the skin of poly-cultural America.

We are also looking at how stress affects skin, not just external stress like sun, or pollution or that sort of thing, but internal stress, social stress, emotional stress, All of that affects your skin, as it is a living example of what you're going through in your life and so you want to make sure you protect it.

CDE: What kinds of challenges do cosmetics R&D experts currently face when trying to cater to these consumers?

SS: So, I always start with the science. It's about understanding ‘what do these consumers really need’? And so we, and of course others in the industry, have done great research to understand skin maturation and the maturation of the microbiome from birth until the teenage years, because your skin develops over that time but really, by the time you're five your skin barrier has developed and has set you up for life.

However, then as you hit puberty, you have the hormones that turn on in the body and in the skin particularly, they start turning on the sebocytes, which creates oil and that really changes the microbiome. It changes a lot right after you're born and then it changes a lot again during puberty.

At Unilever, we have a lot of expertise in the microbiome space. I think we've got 12 terabytes of data now on microbiome that we're, you know, from 12,000 different samples. We have a very intimate understanding of that in consumers of all ages.

And so, for this set of consumers we’re going to want to develop the best products for where they are in their skin stage, but it’s also about creating products that speak to them.

As they've got access to such a wide variety of information now, we really need to be telling people about the science, not just putting it in our products. We need to put publications out there and be vocal on social media about our science and about busting some of the myths that are out there around skin care; you want the voice of the truth to be out there.

CDE: What kind of skin care and wider beauty trends do you expect to see take more precedence in the upcoming years?

Although wellbeing – this idea that what you do every day contributes to your general wellness – has been well understood for a long time in terms of eating healthy, exercising, getting enough sleep, we are realising that the same is true for your beauty and personal care routines that you do every day. Whether that’s brushing your teeth, taking a shower, or getting ready to go out, people are switching to think ‘how do I feel about how I look?’ rather than just ‘how do I look’, and the products we make really contribute to that in a small way every single day.

And so beauty consumers are not only understanding ‘does this product work’ and ‘does it do what I think it should do’, but also ‘how does it make me feel while I'm using it?’ And ‘how does it make me feel after I've used it?’

This holistic approach to beauty and wellbeing is really what we are leaning into. But we are not only creating products that people want to use, we are also creating products that you'll see the results with hero ingredients that have science-backed evidence.

Also, the facial skin care category is a place where new formats are really driving things forward. For example, my 12-year-old daughter loves to use sheet masks and it’s something social that her and her friends do, even if they're not together physically, when they are online chatting. It also creates a social interaction, which I think is really important because that connection also drives wellness for people.

CDE: Is there still a big opportunity to further educate these Generation Alpha beauty consumers? ​ 

SS: I think there's always opportunity for education and repetition really drives that. I do think they have a lot more awareness than we did. When I was that age, it was still popular to lie in the sun, which we now know is terrible for your skin; sunburn and skin cancer is something to be prevented and you just don't see that as much now because people are more aware and educated. But you can still educate people more on it: for example, telling people that it’s not just the UVA and the UVB you need to protect from; there are other light waves that can also damage your skin and that you need to make sure you take care of those too.

I also think they have more of a quest for authenticity; for really understanding ‘what is the meaning behind this brand, this science, this thing that I'm spending my money on?’

I think they're much more aware of that because there's so much choice. They are asking ‘do I feel like it's credible information being told to me by a credible person?’ so I think there's a lot to note in the communication around it.

CDE: I there anything else you wanted to highlight about the next generation of beauty consumers?

SS: We're at a really exciting moment. I remember when we could only look at a small number of scientific samples, or we could only look at genetic information or metabolomic information on one or two samples, and we can now do hundreds. We have 12,000 microbiome samples, looking at consumers all over the world at different ages in different places. With the amount of understanding we now have and we can unlock new technologies. I think that's super exciting. Generation Alpha will be the first consumers to really understand that and bring it into their lives.

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