Brand Multiplicity

Img_0057 Martin Bishop very kindly left a comment on my blog yesterday.  Here’s a portion:

It’s interesting that you select the Axe and Dove teams at Unilever as good programs. They’ve been innovative, for sure, but the fact that they’ve operated so independently has created a brand/corporate reputation issue for Unilever.

When Dove launched its campaign against beauty ads, critics pointed out that this message was absolutely incompatible with Axe’s misogynistic ads. To quote from an op-ed: "A Company’s Ugly Contradiction" in The Boston Globe:

"Viewers are struggling to make sense of how Dove can promise to educate girls on a wider definition of beauty while other Unilever ads exhort boys to make ‘nice girls naughty.’ … Unilever is in the business of selling products, not values, and that means we, the consumers, are being manipulated, no matter how socially responsible an ad seems."

I think this is a cautionary tale suggesting that renegade activity should have limits and that some corporate oversight is essential.

I am grateful for Martin’s comment and I love the imagination and intelligence in evidence on his blog.  But this sort of thing makes me deeply uncomfortable.  From an anthropological point of view, I believe that brands are obliged to be responsive. This is what makes them vital and interesting from a cultural point of view, and, we hope, from a competitive one.  Brands and corporations should be multiple.

There are two points to make here. 

First, I think, it’s not for us to say what Unilever can and can say when it makes an ad for Axe.  To be sure, there is nothing quite so obnoxious and in the wrong circumstances dangerous as a teen age boy.  But it is the job of the marketer to find out what animates the consumer, the meanings at work in his life, to discover his "mattering map."  And Axe campaign does this very well.  We don’t like it.  Too bad.  We are not the arbiters of teen boys or American corporations.

Second, we cannot demand consistency from Unilever in its marketing and branding efforts.  It is going to speak in several languages.  It is after all operating in an increasingly diverse society and several markets.  Consistency would blunt its marketing efforts.  More to our point, consistency would blunt its responsiveness. 

Here’s what I think.  We can’t refuse Unilever the right to make an Axe campaign without giving someone the right to refuse Unilever the right to make the Dove campaign. If we can say "no" to a sexist campaign, someone can say "no" to a feminist one.

Nothing should be foreign to brand.  As I was trying to argue a couple of days ago in the Kleenex post, we are seeing brands get more adventuresome in the meanings they are prepared to cultivate and embrace.  This means that brands are becoming more like other cultural producers, movie makers, poets, writers.  There are some standards here, and perhaps stricter ones that those that constrain the movie maker or the poet, but we are nowhere near these standards in the case of the Axe ad.  To use the language of the Elizabethan court, the Axe ad may be treated as a "thing indifferent."

This is precisely what is wrong with the authenticity argument now being promoted by Gilmore and Pine.  In fact, brands have no native voice.  They may have a brand heritage.  Some brand meanings may come more easily than others.  But there is nothing a brand must say, and nothing, within limits, it mustn’t say.  Brands are designed to be exemplars of responsiveness.  This means we may not insist on what they "really" mean, or what they "must" say.   The very point of the exercise, as this is carried forward by branding, marketing, capitalism, and a dynamic society, hangs in the balance. 

For some reason, we feel free to let fly when talking to a brand.  We say things we would never dream of saying to a movie maker or a novelist.  (And this is interesting.)  But I thought the thing we liked about capitalism is that it is responsive.  In some sense it does not care what received convention says.  It is quite prepared to trumpet new body types if there is an audience for this argument.  It is this aspect of capitalism that so serves the cause of liberty.  It is this aspect of capitalism that has helped it produce the plenitude, the blooming diversity of our contemporary world.   The brand must be multiple because increasingly that’s what the world is. 


See Martin’s blog "Brand Mix" here.

Gilmore, James and Joseph Pine.  2007.  Authenticity: what consumers really want.  Boston: Harvard Business School Press. At here.   

Postrel, Virginia.  1999.  The Future and its Enemies: the growing conflict over creativity, enterprise and progress.  New York: The Free Press.   At here.


Got the image shooting my iPhone outside the window of Amtrak on the way to Cambridge.  I call it "brand migrating."  No, not really.   

25 thoughts on “Brand Multiplicity

  1. Anonymous

    I think you’ve missed the point a bit here. A priori limits on what sort of things a brand can say are what you seem to be against, but that’s not what Martin’s comment seems to be proposing. Rather, he’s making an argument about the sort of circumstances affect the persuasiveness of the brand message. It’s not that the misogynistic Axe brand message is wrong in and of itself, it’s that in the context of a shared corporate parent, the feminist Dove brand argument becomes less persuasive.

  2. Martin Bishop

    Hey! That’s just what I was going to say! (More or less.)

    It’s not that I don’t like the Axe spot, it’s just that Unilever, as the company producing that spot, is going to have a hard time making me believe they are sincere when they also talk about a campaign for real beauty, as they do for Dove. The two ideas don’t mix.

    When I first posted about this on my blog, it was actually in reference to another example – GM trying to boost its green credentials with its new Volt car while, at the same time, advertising its Hummer as good for humanity (link here:

    I don’t think companies can have it both ways. Hiding behind different product brands and pretending that they are independent from each other and able to do whatever they want doesn’t ring true. Especially with more elevated issues like sustainability or female empowerment, a company has to take a consistent stand.

  3. Paul Harrison

    I agree with Grant that there is really no reason why Unilever can’t have it both ways, and this is a reasonable position to take if we believe that the market sits separate from the rest of society. But, if we approach Dove from this perspective, I also think that there comes a point when people stop believing the sincerity of a claim. Clearly, plenty of people continue to buy Dove products, predominantly because they “want” to believe that Dove is doing something good, or the habit of buying Dove products is relatively entrenched in their grocery buying behaviour. The people who will most likely defect from the Dove brand will be those who took it up at the beginning, the early adopters, because they believed in the “idea” of the claim. And they were most likely never that committed to the branded product, rather, what the brand represented. I know that Grant has said this before, but it probably doesn’t worry Unilever if the early adopters of Dove have moved on – it was the mass market that Unilever were after. However, I also think that the connection between Dove and Axe has to be considered from an ethical perspective. Because Dove, and therefore Unilever, are basing their claims around the idea of ethical behaviour, it is important that this type of hypocrisy is highlighted. I actually think that it is for us, as consumers, and as members of the broader community, to question “what Unilever can and can’t say when it makes an ad for Axe”, or for Dove. We can say this by our shopping behaviour, and we can also say it in the way that the Boston Globe said it – by pointing out the hypocrisy of the claim (to those who are interested). That is the nature of discourse, and it is this aspect of free speech that extends the cause of liberty. Sadly, though, I think it is only a few of us who really take notice.

    PS. I am incredibly jealous of your iPhone – in Australia we won’t see them for at least another twelve months (we are stuck with the iTouch), so as far as I am concerned Grant, if you came over here, I’d call you a pre-emptive adopter…

  4. Scott White

    The issue is very clear and easy to understand. Unilever is a corporate brand. Axe and Dove are product brands with their own individual identities. The women that buy Dove aren’t concerned with Axe and infact wouldn’t even know it all came from Unilever if us branding types didn’t make big deals about it.

    If the Dove brand is honest and lives up to its brand promise then there is no problem. But, if it is just a bunch of smoke and mirrors they’re going to have a big concern.

    You can’t hold a corporate brand hostage because they have different feelings for different brands. Makes no sense.

    That’s just my take as a branding guy.

  5. Piers Fawkes

    I think that we’re moving into an era where you’re not going to be able to have companies with brands with such opposing values. People want to work with (buy from) companies that have values that they adhere to. That’s why Method has taken such a swipe at Unilever’s soap market.

    I don’t think consumers are demanding that Unilever changes. They’re just getting informed: The transparency of this digital age shines a light on Unilever and the company is left looking like it’s just another marketing company. We’re left understanding that Axe and Dove aren;t seperate companies that Unilever owns (and therefore may have some reason to act differently) – just different departments on different floors in the same grey building. And no one really wants to work with a marketing company.

  6. Daniel Rosenblatt

    I want to add to the remarks by Martin Bishop & the first commenter: I agree that this is about whether or not a branding strategy is persuasive, and I would suggest its ultimately an ethnographic question to which the answer will be tricky to find.

    It might be that very few people actually make the connection between brands owned by the same corporation, in which case it will work just fine. On the other hand, part of how the Dove campaign worked was all the public attention it got, so attacks on its sincerity in similar venues may effect it how well it persuades. You might argue that such attacks are unfair, that their expectations of consistency misunderstand what a brand is, but again this is an ethnographic question: marketers may design particular brands, and may have developed the language of branding to talk about the way objects take on meaning in consumer society, but they didn’t (I would argue) invent the process, and certainly have no final word on what particular brands mean or on whether people expect brands to be in some way “authentic” expressions of corporate values. I suspect that at least some brands benefit from such feelings—Juicy Couture and American Apparel might be examples, Abercrombie might be another (values don’t have to be public-spirited).

    In this case part of what goes into the equation is that the Dove marketing rests in part on an implicit endorsement of a claim that capitalism could-be/should-be socially responsible, certainly, to use fancy language, it interpolates people as “conscious consumers.”

    I should add the, having just gone and looked at the “naughty to nice” ad online, I don’t really see that it is misogynistic, except in some dumb mainstream media way that equates feminism and prudery. To the extent that the ad plays with gender stereotypes by portraying a women’s prison in ways that are a pastiche of stereotypes about men’s prisons the ad is somewhat subversive of gender stereotypes (maybe: maybe it’s funny because of the supposed implausibility of this, but I don’t think that’s where all the humor lies).

  7. Martin Bishop

    The question is whether a company like Unilever can remove itself completely from the story being told. As Piers pointed out, the Dove marketing people and the Axe marketing people work in the same building for the same company. Can that company be ethically agnostic?

    It probably depends a bit on the issue and a bit on whether the company has taken a high profile and has a particular story to tell. Certainly, for example, Method could not launch a new brand of toxic-laden soaps and expect to get away with it. I also think GM lacks credibility with its new green-messaged Volt considering its still promoting the hell out of its Hummers.

  8. Phil Darby

    Isn’t it nice when everyone agrees? – Well, almost!

    I work with this question all the time in my Brand Discovery workshops and I don’t see any problem here apart from the suggestion that maybe because a few people may want to moralise, Unilever should be made to stop playing both ends against the middle, even though it works for them.

    Consumer choice and freedom of expression mean that if enough people care then the brand(s) (Dove, Axe or Unilever) will fail. I’d be rather more concerned that a minority might decide what Unlilever should be doing (if anything)and try to force their hand. If enough people care then stuff happens.

    I actually think that Unilever have been a bit lazy on this one, because I can see a scenario where both (sub) brand “promises” would sit quite nicely into a corporate brand “promise”. It just seems that they either haven’t thought it through or not highlighted the compatability of the three brands and others that they are guardians of.

    The thing about organsations like Unilever is that sometimes they lose sight of the fact that their corporate DNA is in each of their sub-brands. Ideally they should be seeking consistency, but if it matters that much, as I said, they’ll know soon enough.

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  10. John Dodds

    In our connected world, such contradictiory positions can be highlighted more easily than ever before regardless of whether it shifts many people’s opinions or is a heinous branding error.

    I wonder if the implication is that brand portfolios will become more tightly focussed to the point where a company like Unilever cannot market women’s products if it is to market youth products in the most effective i.e sexist way?

  11. Andrew Smart

    Fascinating discussion. It seems to me that when a brand like Dove takes such a moral stance then then the corporate brand needs to have their house in order otherwise they end up looking foolish. Suddenly the whole marketing thing looks a bit thin.

    On a personal level, I’ve never eaten Quaker Oats Company products since they made the Sugar Puffs commercial featuring the Honey Monster wearing a Newcastle United shirt. (apologies for the obscure football reference)

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  13. srp

    The Dove campaign isn’t moral and the Axe campaign isn’t immoral. In fact, there is not even a logical contradiction between the two–unless you think the critics here would be satisfied to see more full-bodied women throwing themselves at Axe users in their commercials.

  14. Martin Bishop

    Andrew: I wish you hadn’t said that because now I can’t eat any more Quaker Oats either and I’ve got half of one of those huge packs of “Old Fashioned” left. I guess there wasn’t much chance of them using a Partick Thistle shirt which is what would have been needed to keep me loyal.

  15. Andrew Smart

    I think there is a moral implication. Dove’s position is clearly making a point about how women are represented in the media, which doesn’t sit very well with the Lynx campaign. Isn’t that what we’re discussing here?

  16. srp

    The Dove campaign is supposed to be about body image. “Even if you don’t have model proportions, you can still be beautiful.” Or, for the more radical (and reality-denying), “Every body type is beautiful.”

    Neither of these has much to do with the Axe message of fictitiously releasing hypnotic phereomones that turn normal girls into aggressive sex maniacs. Body type is orthogonal to one’s susceptibility to fictitious hypno-sex pheromones.

    For those who like to avoid the specific meanings of the two campaigns and resort to vague innuendos about “how the media represents women,” I still don’t see the problem with the Axe campaign. If you think it shows a view of women as having tremendous repressed sexuality, isn’t that pretty much the main point of much feminist literature? If you think the Axe campaign is saying that only chemical warfare is capable of getting women aroused, isn’t that a testimony to their chastity and virtue?

    Some people seem to think that simply showing women displaying an interest in sex is demeaning. Those people need to look in the mirror to see who represents women in an unflattering way. They might also want to purchase or rent a sense of humor.

  17. Andrew Smart

    Maybe I was being too vague. When I use the term ‘how the media represents women’ I was thinking specifically of the film ‘evolution’ which ends with the line ‘no wonder our perception of beauty is distorted’. When I use the term ‘doesn’t sit very well’ I was pointing at the fact that the two very different brand positions have started a debate not only on blogs like this but also to a much wider audience. (read the comments on you tube) Of course it’s not a black and white issue. The point I was trying to make is that for the people that are supposed to respond well to the Dove advertising may not be entirely comfortable with it’s corporate relationship to the Lynx campaign. For the record, I was involved directly in the development of the Axe/Lynx brand and I’d like to think I also have a sense of humor.

    (you’re not a Newcastle supporter are you srp?)

  18. Nikolaj Stagis

    Great disscussion here. And thanks to Andrew and Martin for a good laugh.

    There is a point in discussing how two sets of values embraced in commercials by two so-called product brands represent some sort of integrity with the corporate brand – or wether they don’t. Evidently, and to an increasing degree, consumers see through product brands and take into account which company the product (and “it’s” communication) comes from. In a study on resource partitioning in the beer market, Carroll found that consumers preferred beer that came from a family-owned, local business using handcraft and their own recipes which explains why the number of microbreweries have risen ten-fold over the past twenty years. More importantly, it shows that consumers are interested in the organizational identity behind the product – not just the product and it’s features (or it’s advertising). Along the same lines there are lots of studies that connect the reputation of a company to the buying preferences of the customers. And guess what the primary dimension of a company’s reputation people rely on the most? The authenticity of the organization, followed by transparency, integrity, trustworthiness and a few others.

    Now it may be that Unilever decides for themselves what to do with their product brands and how they want to communicate to two relatively different consumer segments. However this blog, Youtube and loads of other sources have made it possible for people to understand and investigate the companies they support much better. And to make things “worse” the New Realists, Cultural Creatives, Creative Class-members, New Consumers and Inner-directeds (choose any of them, they have sort of similar preferences) all want authentic experiences delivered by authentic companies because they want to surround themselves with things/people/organizations they can believe in. Is Unilever one of them? Well, not as far as I can tell from all the comments before mine – if Unilever was driven by greater meaning than making money and had a clearer heritage we probably wouldn’t be discussing this. And the Axe/Dove commercials would both carry a value-system that might not be similar but certainly with more shared beliefs.

    By the way, I like the commercials/campaigns we’re discussing. I just see how the modernist separation of the corporate brand and product brands is working to a lesser degree than it did 10-20 years ago. And that doesn’t mean that all messages from a large corporation doing business across 2-digit numbers of markets have to communicate the same everywhere. It just means that it has to come from a shared set of beliefs and hence show some degree of connection to the company that makes the stuff and delivers the message.

  19. simon billing

    The issue of whether separate brand groups within a single corporation should be able to execute against brand appropriate insights that may have inherent contradictions, is a bit of a red herring.

    The really difficult question (as I write about here is how far a “brand” can go in proselytizing on social issues in the context of what is still a brand-sell message. At the outset, the Dove campaign celebrated women and their individual expressions of beauty, which has proven a demonstrably apt and appealing message for Dove. But it was the furthest thing from judgemental.

    However, as they move into what is in effect judging the industry of which they are a major part (as they do in my view with the “Evolution” execution), they move into territory that invites deeper scrutiny of the corporation, not to mention potential cynicism with regard to the overall Dove message.

  20. srp

    Andrew: Congratulations on participating in the Axe campaigns. I agree that they are strong evidence of having a sense of humor. Just don’t deactivate that sense of humor as soon as the commissars start going on about women’s images in the media.

    In general, I would be surprised if most people actually thought that Keebler cookies were baked by elves in a hollow tree or that Dove was produced by a feminist discussion workshop. It seems to me that if consumers want to affiliate with a message or an idea expressed in an advertising campaign, their loyalty would be more likely to be to the idea than to the corporate entity behind it. They like the brand because it is “voting” in favor of their values, not because they identify with the company behind it.

    Smart consumers certainly would be leery of buying into corporate “authenticity”, as examples like Anita Roddick’s Body Shop attest. Some people might even think that psychological projection predicts that organizations are often most guilty of what they profess to deplore in others–hence ACORN and PIRG are known as abusive workplaces, Hollywood portrayers of evil businessmen are unusually unethical in their own dealings, Bill and Hillary Clinton were originally rhetorical supporters of sexual harassment complainants, and so on. If you know you would do something bad, you may think that stirring up fears against that very sin would be a good way of attracting support. If Unilever’s moralizing about exploitive female imagery in the media is similarly projective, that hypocrisy would neither invalidate their argument on its merits nor make them especially unusual.

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  22. Hillel

    I love this discussion. Some observations:

    * it’s true that big corporations are (probably) more often than not nothing close to authentic. And since it’s mostly public companies that are funding national and global branding campaigns, this is almost always the case. But I believe there are some corporations that are smaller, privately held, or still run by their founders, that are adhering to some authentic corporate DNA in their brand. I also believe that the market has room for a lot more brands than exist today. (Just as there are more than enough music consumers to patronize musicians that aren’t in the top 40.)

    * Unilever has made a choice – their corporate brand is meaningless. So this dichotomy is not a problem for them. Their seemingly contradictory positions wrt Dove and Axe aren’t a problem unless they decided to accrue credit for those brands to the parent company. It’s possible they could have taken that path and told a story about Unilver that rationalizes the two campaigns (Unilever == pluralism??) but that’s not the path they took.

    * While I chafe at some of the cynicism of the two campaigns (and at corporations that aren’t transparent about what drives them beyond money) at least they are going for it. What would be worse than this inconsistency is muddying both messages in the name of some faux corporate consistency. I’ve been in that world and all it produces is pablum that no cusomter identifies with.

  23. RPWebley

    Thanks for an interesting debate. This is what I think.
    Brand meaning is consumer experience of the brand. Given the individually subjective nature of human experience, one could argue that there cannot be one true meaning of any brand. They mean different things to different people. With this in mind I would argue that any demand for consistency within corporate parents such as Unilever is fundamentally flawed.

    – Just a bit of food for thought…

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