7 Branding lessons from the Dove campaign

Dove_ii Marketing can be a lot like surfing.  The brand surveys contemporary culture as if it were the surf off Australia’s Gold Coast, looking for the perfect wave. 

In the early oughts (probably 2003), Unilever made an extraordinary discovery.  A global research project told them that of the 3200 women they had surveyed, only 64 of them (or 2%) were prepared to call themselves beautiful.  Seventy-six per cent of the respondents wanted the idea of beauty to change. 

Unilever decided to make itself that change agent:

The Dove mission is to widen the definition of beauty.  The Campaign for Real Beauty is based on a belief that beauty comes in different shapes, sizes, ages and that real beauty can be genuinely stunning.  (Verkade in Lichti, below) 

The Dove campaign for Real Beauty launched in 2004.

Yesterday, I talked about the Dove campaign…because Virginia Postrel had done so.  But in truth I had wanted to talk about this campaign for a long time. 

After all, the Dove campaign for real beauty is a great example of marketing that works with contemporary culture, not against it.  Dove was prepared to capture the tremendous energy coming off a trend that many brands just looked through or tried to work around.  In point of fact, ideas of femaleness had been "under review" and deeply contested in our society at least since the ideas of Susan B. Anthony.  The tide had come and gone several times by 2003 and now it appeared to be prepared to transform our culture’s most fundamental ideas of what beauty is. 

Brands that surf culture have to choose their moment with exquisite timing.  If they are a moment too soon, they look like reckless "kooks" way out ahead of the trend.  The brand will pay for it.  The brand manager’s career will pay for it.  On the other hand, if they wait too long, they are going to look like johnnies-come-lately playing me-too marketing.  March can be too early and May too late.  April is the sweet spot between ridicule and scorn. 

We can’t know what was going on within Dove, but we may assume that Unilever marketers were monitoring several diverse developments in contemporary culture, everything from the Boston "our bodies, ourselves" collective founded in 1970 to Anna Nicole Smith, the voluptuous celebrity who died tragically in 2007 through the TV show Sex in the City.  (We can’t say that the head’s up came from the 2003 research project.  Something had to inspire the project.) 

But the moment that Dove decided to get on board was the moment that the trend took on an extraordinary ally.  Using the creative talent at the brand’s disposal and the deep pockets at Unilever, there was now a mainstream champion of a new definition of beauty.  At some point, Oprah came on board.  The fitness studio Curves was established. Special K got in on the action.  (We must hope for a clarifying history here.)  And before very long, the beauty hegemony of Vogue and the Hollywood Studio was being challenged.  A nascent, distributed, but deeply unofficial unhappiness with beauty concepts suddenly was given a voice and a profile.

There is a bargain at work here, a trade.  In order to get access to the power and the authenticity of the new beauty movement, Dove makes available its marketing cunning and check book.  To get access to Dove’s cunning and check book, the trend makes available its power and authenticity.   Intellectuals are fond of talking about how capitalism corrupts culture, but this bargain looks like a pretty good one.  Both parties prosper.

Seven branding lessons of the Dove campaign

1. Survey the world.  Get to know the  culture. 

2. Discover the trend or the impulse that could serve the brand.

3. Assess the downside risks to which the brand is exposed.

4. Establish a time table that shows the growth of the trend.

5. Establish the moment to get in.

6. Partner with the enthusiasts of the trend.

7. Make your move (repeat steps 1 through 6)

References

Anonymous.  n.d., History of Our Bodies Ourselves and the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective.  here

Clegg, Alicia. 2005. Dove Gets Real.  Brandchannel.com.  April 18, 2005. here

Lichti, Shirley.  2006.  Dove Campaign reflects a beautiful strategy.  The Record.  June 21, 2006. here

McMains, Andrew.  2007.  $70 mil. Weight Watchers in Play.  Adweek.  February 14, 2007.  here.  [The Watchers went into play today, with $70 million at stake, and WPP Group’s Young and Rubicam the incumbent.  Dove will has changed the landscape in which the winning agency and this brand must work.]

Piper, Tim, Yael Staav, Mark Wakefield, Sharon MacLeod, Stephanie Hurst. 2005.  Dove Film.  as posted on YouTube, September 5, 2005. here.  [This short film appears to compile clips from ethnographic interviews with girls 7-17 roughly.  Captures the pressures on young women to lose weight.]

Traister, Rebecca.  2005.  "Real beauty" — or really smart marketing. Dove has a worthy new ad campaign that tells women to embrace their curves. Too bad they’re hawking cellulite cream.  Salon.  July 22, 2005.  here

10 thoughts on “7 Branding lessons from the Dove campaign”

  1. The obvious counterattack is for rivals to imply that Dove is for pedestrian, overweight people, as compared to their stylish, with-it stuff. It can be done by implication, without mentioning Dove at all. “Don’t settle for being the caterpillar you appear to be. Spread your wings and bring out your true beauty with —-” would be the basic idea, although that particular phrasing is execrable ad copy (worth what you paid for it).

    Back in the 1970s, looking “natural” was the big thing in cosmetics. (Rhoda Morgenstern even joked about it on the Mary Tyler Moore show.) By 1981, anyone pitching “natural” was perceived as “dumpy” and “no fun.” It was time for costuming and aritificiality.

  2. I always thought this campaign of Dove’s was a bit disingenuous; reinforcing traditional standards of beauty while purporting to redefine those standards. All of the women used are, if not traditionally beautiful, at least traditionally attractive. Some are quite beautiful but have one trait not commonly thought of as desirable, such as excess weight or age (isn’t nearly all age excess!). Said another way, Dove takes no chances that we’ll wince when we see one of their models, because they all exhibit predominantly “beautiful” attributes, while sometimes also exhibiting one less desirable, but not overwhelmingly so, attribute. I feel a bit used and preached to when I see it.

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  4. 1. create an organizational culture that is based on trust and that encourages risk (variety)
    2. have a top-management with a feeling for cultural shifts and potential fit (focus)
    3. don’t talk! – execute! (action)

  5. All this has been very fascinating reading indeed.
    As the former lead planner on Dove hair care and deodorant in the US for almost three years, professional decorum requires that I tread lightly here, but I have the benefit of an insider’s perspective on much that has been commented upon in response to Grant’s original post.

    Here are some aspects to share with you all which may put a different spin on the interpretation:

    1. It’s fair to say that unilever and its roster agency where cognizent of the strategic need to tap a cultural vein in order to drive the ambitious goal to make Dove a master brand within Unilever brand portfolio.

    2. The ‘discovery’ path was not nearly as systematic as (at least I feel) is suggested in Grant’s post. As it is in the majority of cases, it was a confluence of the right kinds of minds working on the business at a specific point in time that lead to the ultimate realization of territory for a brand whose time had come

    3. I’d question the linearity of the thinking and specifically the role of the beauty survey when positioned as the precipitating catalyst to an emergence of brand territory of new found opportunity.

    4. As the Dove hair care planner completely uninvolved in the overall masterbrand strategic development, I can tell you that – in engaging women at the same time the brand strategy was being minted, in frank discussions about their relationship with beauty in hair and the role that the highly familiar beauty conventions and stereotypes play – it was not that hard to unearth a sense of alienation and opportunity. That while women acknowledged that the category’s definition of beautiful hair was one they willingly aspired to and could achieve with the requisite effort, it was not which they felt deep down left room or space for them.

    5. While one may argue that the desire for ‘inclusion’ was latent potential that encouraged people’s bond to the brand (“hey I was excluded from the club before but now this is a club I can belong to…”) far more emotionally potent was the recognition of the innate potential that each woman has in the body/skin/hair she was born with done not in an forced acceptance/acquiesing way but in a celebratory manner. No brand had acknowledged this potential before and first mover advantage gave Dove a tremendous head-start.

    6. The notion of ‘real beauty’ had been at the heart of brand’s architecture for some time but it had no meaning, or at least there was no understanding among the collective brand team at client and agency as to the significance this idea had to galvanize the brand. It took a convergence of the right people with the serendipity of the prevailing climate of openness to challenging restrictive beauty ideas to make it possible.

    I’ll stop at this juncture as this blog topic is now two days old, which makes its currency as fresh as yesterday’s news.

  6. All this has been very fascinating reading indeed.
    As the former lead planner on Dove hair care and deodorant in the US for almost three years, professional decorum requires that I tread lightly here, but I have the benefit of an insider’s perspective on much that has been commented upon in response to Grant’s original post.

    Here are some aspects to share with you all which may put a different spin on the interpretation:

    1. It’s fair to say that unilever and its roster agency where cognizent of the strategic need to tap a cultural vein in order to drive the ambitious goal to make Dove a master brand within Unilever brand portfolio.

    2. The ‘discovery’ path was not nearly as systematic as (at least I feel) is suggested in Grant’s post. As it is in the majority of cases, it was a confluence of the right kinds of minds working on the business at a specific point in time that lead to the ultimate realization of territory for a brand whose time had come

    3. I’d question the linearity of the thinking and specifically the role of the beauty survey when positioned as the precipitating catalyst to an emergence of brand territory of new found opportunity.

    4. As the Dove hair care planner completely uninvolved in the overall masterbrand strategic development, I can tell you that – in engaging women at the same time the brand strategy was being minted, in frank discussions about their relationship with beauty in hair and the role that the highly familiar beauty conventions and stereotypes play – it was not that hard to unearth a sense of alienation and opportunity. That while women acknowledged that the category’s definition of beautiful hair was one they willingly aspired to and could achieve with the requisite effort, it was not which they felt deep down left room or space for them.

    5. While one may argue that the desire for ‘inclusion’ was latent potential that encouraged people’s bond to the brand (“hey I was excluded from the club before but now this is a club I can belong to…”) far more emotionally potent was the recognition of the innate potential that each woman has in the body/skin/hair she was born with done not in an forced acceptance/acquiesing way but in a celebratory manner. No brand had acknowledged this potential before and first mover advantage gave Dove a tremendous head-start.

    6. The notion of ‘real beauty’ had been at the heart of brand’s architecture for some time but it had no meaning, or at least there was no understanding among the collective brand team at client and agency as to the significance this idea had to galvanize the brand. It took a convergence of the right people with the serendipity of the prevailing climate of openness to challenging restrictive beauty ideas to make it possible.

    I’ll stop at this juncture as this blog topic is now two days old, which makes its currency as fresh as yesterday’s news.

  7. Hi Grant

    Actually what I gather really happened was they ran a single (thigh firming) print ad in germany featuring an outsized model (because they need to have the ample thighs which would benefit from the product). The ad triggered a lot of positive PR about using realistic women rather than size zero models. They took this feedback and ran with it. It was only after they had accidently discovered this that they did that survey, hired Susie Orbach to advise etc.

    There are several other lessons in that:
    1. be lucky
    2. learn from your accidents
    3. establish ways your audience/public/media can lead your strategy

    They were better organised to capitalise on this/understand it for all the reasons you describe & the timing was perfect.

    Also the execution was very important; its not that they were the first to point to the attractriveness of real women – but the presentation of this thought was usually in realistic unstylised settings (akin to ‘reality TV’) whereas the Dove art direction (white background, model presented like the statue of a goddesss…) which was present in that very first ad signified BEAUTY in a classical (Chanel) mode.

    All in all, isnt the messy ambiguous story of this and most hits more Cate Blanchett than we’d care to admit?

  8. Grant: this was indeed a terrific ‘feel good’ campaign that has done them well. I would have jumped into the argument that gugoda related had I read this earlier — I’m not on the inside of this campaign at all, but I seriously doubt that this happened with any carefully laid, culturally monitoring, timing sensitive stealth. The German agency that ran a little campaign that tapped a larger vein that caused the US agency to take it and run with it sounds a whole lot more authentic. The fact is that sometimes (good) accidents happen, and this was probably one of them.

    Sure, UNI knew there were disenfranchised consumers who wanted ‘in’, sure they knew few thought of themselves as beautiful, and to be sure, none of the models used could possibly be confused with ‘ugly’. All the same, I’d bet this was more haphazard than anyone would like to admit. I could be wrong!

    Thanks — excellent blog, by the way —

  9. Are you saying that about 8% of women feel beautiful by doing advertising for companies like Nike, etc… I’m talking about plus size women. Tyra Banks is having a top model contest on her show, using plus size women. Please e-mail me back and let me know.

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