Heather Mitchell | The Innovator 25

Heather Mitchell

The Innovator 25: Heather Mitchell

Global director, head of brand PR & social media, Unilever Hair Care


Influence & Engagement


"I believe that in order to be truly effective in PR and marketing roles, you need to have an interest in and curiosity for different people, cultures, beliefs and ways of life"
US native Mitchell's work at Unilever has seen her develop compelling marketing initiatives for key Unilever brands, including TRESemme, Dove Hair, Toni&Guy and Clear. And while her role for hair care brands — overseeing global PR and social media — is somewhat unique in the Unilever world, her work across the company reflects how Mitchell has been able to usher in a more innovative PR mindset at the FMCG giant. A particular case in point must be the Axe Lounge, which transformed that brand's editorial credibility and conversational appeal across a three-year period. Mitchell has been with Unilever for eight years, prior to which she worked at Gatorade and Jim Beam.

In what area of marketing/PR do you see the most innovation?
Content & creativity.

How would you describe the communications/PR industry’s level of innovation?
About the same as other marketing disciplines.

Where do you see the greatest opportunity for marketing & PR to become more innovative?
Planning & analytics.

Who most influences how innovative a brand’s marketing/PR is?
The consumer. At the end of the day, if we aren't listening to the people who we want to love us, care about us and share our content, then we aren't doing our jobs.

What brands and/or agencies are most innovative when it comes to marketing/PR?
In terms of agencies, of course I am biased, but my agency partners Edelman, Weber Shandwick and Beauty Seen have been incredibly innovative for my projects over the course of my 8+ year Unilever journey. I am most proud of my brand teams for coming up with the idea of All Things Hair, our digital platform that we launched in the past year to answer the 1B+ searches for hair solutions; while I can't take any credit for the idea I am so proud of the team for thinking in such an innovative way to truly meet a consumer need. In terms of brands, I respect many of the obvious candidates in my industry: Burberry and Topshop, but also newcomers that have made a big impact in a short amount of time like Charlotte Tilbury.

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider ‘innovative.’
When I oversaw the Axe brand, we were at a turning point in the brand's life stage which also coincided with some evolutions in the marketing space. The impact of celebrity was increasing significantly and we were seeing so many more opportunities to tell branded stories through associations with pop culture and celebrities, all the while consumer engagement in social media was expanding rapidly. My agency team and I came up with an idea to create a lifestyle event called the Axe Lounge, essentially a club that brought in top DJs and celebrities every single weekend throughout the summer, as well as during marquee pop culture tent poles like the Sundance Film Festival and Superbowl. It enabled the brand to drive editorial coverage and consumer conversation regularly in a credible, engaging way, which sustained momentum throughout the year for more than three years, not just when we had new product news. It was a new way of thinking for the brand and really the organization, and also was a bit of an investment since it was long term, but it paid off in spades. It allowed us to be relevant and interesting in an always on fashion, while giving us a platform to engage editors, bloggers and consumers in an experience, ultimately building brand equity and consumer love.

Who is your mentor and why?
I find inspiration from so many people, whether the head of my group, an agency partner, entry level brand manager or those whom I’ve been fortunate enough to work with throughout my career. But two people stand out in particular: my professor at Ohio University Jerry Sloan and my first boss in Chicago, Lisa Doherty. Jerry was the VP of PR at Ford for 30 years and used that experience to show us how PR worked, not just tell us. He was such an inspiration to so many students and through the lens of a real work experience, taught us practical information with a humorous spin. Lisa was an industry veteran on the client and agency side when she hired me; she taught me so many valuable lessons through her many quotable mantras, including ‘clients don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care’ – which I believe holds true today, not just in an agency/client partnership perspective, but also when thinking about earning the attention and consideration of consumers in this cluttered, competitive marketing space. The best mentors stay with you throughout your career and I hope that I’ve paid it forward and also done that for people with whom I’ve worked over the past 18+ years.  

How do you get inspired?
Travel. I believe that in order to be truly effective in PR and marketing roles, you need to have an interest in and curiosity for different people, cultures, beliefs and ways of life. There are so many ways to open your eyes, mind and heart personally — and from a marketing perspective, truly understand the diversity and needs of consumers — if you open yourself up to the possibility of travel. I’m proud of having been to 47 countries to date; since it is such a strong passion and source of inspiration, I have instilled that within my kids as well, who have been to 13 and 22 countries respectively, at the tender ages of one and three. My hope is that they are also curious and encouraged to take on this adventurous spirit to always be learning, growing and inspired.   

Advice for people seeking to bring new ideas, ways of doing things to their organizations?
I was once was instructed in a brainstorm to come up with an idea that 'would get us fired.' While I am not advocating for us to be quite that extreme, I do think that if you take the handcuffs off and don't consider barriers, ideas can be limitless. 

In your opinion, what’s the most innovative place in the world?
To me it is a cross between London, New York, Paris and Tokyo. I've never been so inspired personally and professionally as I am when in one of these four cities. I'm lucky to have lived in two of them, while frequently visiting the others, and find them equally fascinating. 

What’s your favorite time of day and why?
A bit cliché, but I love both dusk and dawn.  A sunrise and sunset both equate to new beginnings and offer a spectacular view filled with inspiration, ideas and encouragement.  Every city I go to I make sure to see both while I’m there, no matter how sleep deprived I am.  They are free and universal sources of inspiration, and unique every single day... not to mention a pretty darn good Instagram post.