Dove: The Campaign for Real Beauty

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Dove headed on a path to redefine beauty. The dilemma was that it was selling a beauty product itself. Dove headed down a long path of controversy that ended up stirring societal dialogue about beauty. Although people view this as a naïve decision that pro’s and con’s either way are quite strong and worth considering before a conclusion is reached.

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Unilever’s brand “Dove” has been one of the company’s leading brands and “in 2007, Unilever’s Dove was the world’s number-one ‘cleansing’ brand in the health and beauty sector, with sales of over $2.5 billion a year in more than 80 countries.. It competed in categories that included cleansing bars, body washes, hand washes, face care, hair care, deodorants, anti-perspirants, and body lotions.” The competition was against leading products of companies like P&G, Kao’s and Beiersdorf’s.

Over the years Unilever had become proud owner and operator of a dozen brands all over the world and each worth more than a billion dollars. Although Unilever had much to be proud of, having so many brands spread out all over the world was creating global decentralization. In other words, each brand stood out on its own in each of the respective countries but Unilever wasn’t the unifying identity. In retrospect, the company decided to go along a “Path of Growth” in 2000 and create strong and centralized global brand identity:

“An important part of this initiative was a plan to winnow its more than 1,600 brands down to 400.. Among the surviving brands, a small number would be selected as “Masterbrands,” and mandated to serve as umbrella identities over a range of product forms. Previously Unilever had managed brands in a relatively decentralized fashion, allowing direction to be set by brand managers in each of the geographic regions in which the brand was marketed. Now, for the first time, there would be a global brand unit for each Masterbrand, entrusted with responsibility for creating its global vision and charged with inspiring cooperation from all geographic markets.”

Unilever’s brand Dove was a concept that originated in the 1950’s in the USA, this was the post-World War II era. The core concept behind the Dove soap was that it didn’t dry out skin like normal soap and it used military based research and scientific evidence to back this idea up. The soap was marketed through print media, billboard ads and television ads eventually building a huge brand identity and equity for Dove.

In line with the idea of centralizing the Unilever identity, Dove was chosen as one of the Masterbrand’s. “In that role, it was called on to lend its name to Unilever entries in personal care categories beyond the beauty bar category, such as deodorants, hair care products, facial cleansers, body lotions, and hair styling products.” These highlighted the functional benefits of the brand but Dove wanted to do something different, they wanted to develop an idea and come up with a concept that would identify the new product extensions by the company. Dove was no longer going to be a soap brand. Instead it would have an array of products that would be available to products and to incorporate those products into one strategy and one ‘big idea’ Dove wanted to come up with a new concept that would cover everything that Dove had to offer.

“No longer could Dove communicate mere functional superiority, because functionality meant different things in different categories. Unilever decided, instead, that Dove should stand for a point of view.”

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The research for this new point of view began right away and an exploratory market research led to the idea of “The Campaign for Real Beauty.” The concept behind the idea was that there is a general prevailing idea that “young, white, blonde and thin” is the definition of beautiful. This concept was portrayed in all advertisements and marketing campaigns when it came to beauty products whereas to achieve that image was an unrealistic goal for the majority of women all over the world.

The first step in launching this campaign was a billboard ad that displayed women of all sizes and color in their bra’s and underwear with the question “outsized or outstanding?” The next step was to launch an ad campaign that featured ‘real’ women talking about beauty and posing in plain white underwear.

“Dove marketing director for the U..S., Kathy O’Brien, told the press that the company wanted the ads to “change the way society views beauty,” and “provoke discussion and debate about real beauty.””

The dilemma arose when people posed the question that “When you talk of real beauty, do you lose the aspirational element? Are consumers going to be inspired to buy a brand that doesn’t promise to take you to a new level of attractiveness? Debunking the beauty myth brings with it the danger that you are debunking the whole reason to spend a little more money for the product. You’re setting yourself up to be an ordinary brand.” After all, Dove originated as a beauty bar!

Next, Dove targeted the self esteem issues of young women where the Dove leadership team itself filmed their own daughters. This advertisement was one of the most impacting ads during the campaign and also sparked the most controversy but there was a dilemma once again, a product was never mentioned. Advertisements are used to sell products and earn more revenue but if the product itself was missing from the commercial how was the company ever supposed to sell it?! The dilemma was summed up by Tillemans, “Here was a brand in the health-and-beauty category, blatantly out to debunk the dream that supermodel beauty was within your grasp. We were saying that the beauty industry was portraying an unattainable and stereotypical image of beauty, and yet there we were in the beauty industry.”

Their next step was to make a short film and post it on YouTube to stir people’s idea about beauty even more. Later the created commercial contests that asked everyday people to submit their ideas about the product and how they felt when they used it. Eventually the campaign got a lot media attention that TV giants like Katie Couric and Oprah Winfrey did entire shows based on the idea. But with good publicity comes bad publicity and the question here was weather for Dove the statement “even bad publicity is good publicity” would hold true. Dove chose to circulate and stir even more controversy by responding to the opposition and received a lot of publicity. Dove was also on top of its public relations policy’s and created camps for helping young girls with self esteem and confidence issues.

There might have been possible solutions to the dilemma. The first and most simple one being that they could have stuck to everyday norms and capitalized on the idea of beauty that is portrayed by someone else. By fighting for “The Campaign for Real Beauty” Dove was fighting itself: a beauty brand was trying to redefine ‘beauty.’ The pros of this strategy would have been that Dove would have been like every other beauty brand out there. It would be competing with the same people in the same way. There might have been lesser risks. Dove already had a very strong brand identity and was widely recognized. The company could have used the same idea that was behind its beauty bar, “a product that doesn’t dry out your skin.” They could have built their line extension on this idea by developing hairspray formula that would leave hair softer and less dry and brittle compared to other hairspray products. The deodorant could have been moisturizer for the underarm, and area many people tend to neglect once they’ve tackled the odor and perspiration control aspect. The lotions, cleansers and all other products could have been based on a creamier and moisturizing formula and that could have been there brand philosophy from beginning to end. Keeping with tradition they could have avoided all the risks and perhaps with the appropriate market research they could have discovered whether moisturizing products would succeed in the current market.

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The cons of this strategy would have been excessive though. The products would only be marketed on a functional purpose instead of having a concept or idea behind it all. It would reduce the product to utility based one. If you take any product in the market today it has a brand identity, a brand image and basically a story to tell. Experiential marketing is the new norm and people actually buy the ideas when they’re told in a story like manner. We go to Disney to experience a magical land, Herbal Essences was marketed on an orgasmic experience and people book a 5 star hotel because to have a good and luxurious experience. Unilever’s idea was to globally centralize its brands and to not have a single idea aside from a functional benefit might have been detrimental to the health of the brand.

Although there were risks involved in the beauty campaign, a higher risk sometimes brings back a higher return. Perhaps what Dove could have done was to have controlled what the media had to say about the brand when people started bombarding the campaign as a rubbish idea. The pro’s of press control are obvious: you get to keep a clean image of your company or brand and quiet down any opposition. Although what Dove did was to take an issue and purposefully create a controversy over it to create propaganda controlling what the opposition had to say would have been completely undemocratic. The idea behind Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” was that it wanted break away from the stereotype and undemocratic image of “young, white, blonde” beauty. Henceforth stopping any negative feedback would contradict their original idea.

Ironically though, their campaign in itself contradicted what the beauty product market was built upon: selling a certain image of beauty. Call it naiveté or sincerity, Dove was pretty much cannibalizing its own product to stir societal debate. In the business world this might have been considered as the companies’ naiveté. Dove might have been able to avoid this dilemma had it simply focused on appreciating differences rather than trying to redefine the entire definition of beauty which although is a great sincere idea but also a risky one. Once again a dilemma would arise. To appreciate differences in it self is basically redefining beauty.

In my opinion, what Dove did was revolutionary. Although it was quite a dilemma it was something different, something no one had done before, at least no one in the beauty product business. To take a product that you are selling and breaking away from the age old concept that’s been behind the selling strategy of that product is a brave idea. Non-profit organizations have been promoting ideas to appreciate differences for a long time but when a profit earning organization takes a stance it can be heard louder and have more impact. Our society today is infiltrated with the media and the messages it provides. Media flows through our bodies. Any tidbit of information we get is through the media, whichever form it may be in. Sometimes we forget is what the media portrays is not mere facts and information. We sometimes fail to understand that the information provided in the media is not value neutral and instead has an ulterior motive. We are showered with images of skinny women wearing expensive clothing and are bombarded with images of hot and toned bodies everywhere we look so we can be sucked into the consumer based industry that this country is built on.

Dove introduced a new point of view in mainstream media. It introduced that real beauty comes from within and not through beauty products, makeup, having a certain type of body shape or accessory. Dove taught women around the world, or lent a helping hand towards appreciating differences and raising self esteem and confidence amongst women. Although some people believe that Dove was competing with what it was selling I believe that Dove introduced a new way of looking at beauty products. It’s not to enhance what we look like but to protect what we already have. Dove didn’t burn all the beauty soaps in the world; it told women that beauty meant taking care of your skin. It taught women that getting caught up in the whirlpool of the cosmetic age you should just focus on keeping your skin and your body and your hair healthy.

Like the New York Times Magazine said, the campaign was truly a “Social Lubricant—How a marketing campaign became the catalyst for a societal debate… the more intriguing fact is that it is a marketing campaign—not a political figure or a major news organization or even a film—that ‘opened a dialogue’….”

“In September 2006, Landor Associates identified Dove as one of 10 brands with the greatest percentage gain in brand health and business. It computed that the brand had grown by $1.2 billion.” Although it’s hard to tell what caused this growth, the extension in product categories or “The Campaign for Real Beauty” Dove accomplished a huge goal. The campaign was widely recognized but the public and every form of media was covering the campaign. A lot of dialogue was stirred because of the celebrity attention the campaign caught and the controversial idea behind it all.

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“Thousands of blogs and Internet chat forums showed a rich diversity of public dialog. There were declarations by fathers to daughters on themes like self- esteem, and there were endorsements of Dove’s stand against stereotypes of beauty. Parody advertising abounded on websites that let people post and share videos, such as YouTube, Google Video, and Grouper. Some of the parodies were respectful of the brand or gently humorous, but others were more edgy. Some parodies and Internet postings raised questions about Unilever’s sincerity, its objectivity, and its motives. Then there were the professional marketers and consultants, trying to make sense of the strategy of a brand that was building meaning by courting controversy.”

Dove was successful in achieving its goal of redefining beauty or at least adding the option to the menu card while being able to sell more products. The decision might have been viewed as naiveté by others but the sincerity of Dove paid off.

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BusinessEssay. (2022) 'Dove: The Campaign for Real Beauty'. 5 August.


BusinessEssay. 2022. "Dove: The Campaign for Real Beauty." August 5, 2022.

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BusinessEssay. "Dove: The Campaign for Real Beauty." August 5, 2022.