How Dove's Real Beauty campaign won, and nearly lost, its audience

In their 2019 Page Society Case Study Competition winning entry, Sarah Dasher and Olivia Zed examine the hits and misses of Dove's Real Beauty campaign.

It’s tough to argue with PRWeek’s recent anointing of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty by Unilever and Edelman as the Best U.S. Campaign of the Past 20 Years. Since its 2004 inception, Real Beauty’s provocative ads, thought leadership, and educational initiatives for beauty equality combined to form something more akin to a social movement than a gimmicky emotional appeal from a packaged goods giant.

The Dove difference hasn’t just come from using more diverse "real" women in its ads. Unilever was one of the earliest to adopt corporate sustainability into its business model, and the often tearjerker Real Beauty ads were backed by lots of action to improve the self-esteem of women everywhere.

The campaign’s impact extended beyond promoting a vision for beauty equality. Sales for Dove jumped from $2.5 to $4 billion in the campaign’s first ten years. Dove bars became the number one preferred soap brand in the U.S. and Unilever’s best selling product company-wide.

That’s why so many people scratched their heads over the subsequent missteps that caused consumers to call foul on what they said was racism in some of the Real Beauty messages.

Specifically, in October 2017, Dove released a three-second body wash ad on Facebook. The ad featured a diverse trio of women individually lifting their shirts to transition into one another: a black woman pulled up her shirt to reveal a white woman, who then unveiled an Asian woman.

Depicting a black woman transforming to white through soap was an unwitting nod to an ugly theme of 19th century advertising when blatantly racist messages suggested "dirty" people of color could be purified to white with soap.

Unsurprisingly, the ad swiftly incited a wave of criticism across social media denouncing Dove for racism. Global headlines in top-tier traditional media outlets followed.

This was the third incident; uncomfortably similar missteps had occurred in 2011 and 2014.

As graduate students at Boston University’s College of Communication looking for a challenging crisis to analyze in our entry to the IPR’s and Page Society’s annual case study competition, we decided to examine the lightning rod cultural issues of purpose, profits and race through the lens of the 2017 Dove episode.

Where did Dove go wrong? For us, the most salient issues were the enduring failure to act and listen when consumers tried to have a conversation with Dove.

In each instance, individuals called out the brand and asked for answers. But instead of welcoming the opportunity for dialogue and reflection, Dove tried to diminish those concerns and excuse its own actions.

In 2011, Dove denied any wrongdoing or intent to cause offense, and in 2014, the company attributed its mistake to a production oversight. Together, these response strategies signaled a focus on minimizing responsibility and scapegoating rather than listening to the public.

In short, Dove was dismissive, which inevitably led to the 2017 crisis.

For purpose-driven brands like Dove, success is largely based on the strength of their consumers relationships. Key to those bonds is moving beyond a transactional approach and investing in efforts to listen. Actively listening and engaging with audiences shows that you care. And Dove’s repeated, absent responses indicated it did not.

At least, that’s how things looked for the last 18 months until Dove’s recent unveiling of a new Real Beauty effort grounded entirely in listening. Project #ShowUs asks women to do just that in a crowdsource-driven partnership with Getty Images and Girlgaze "to create the world’s largest photo library created by women and non-binary individuals to shatter beauty stereotypes."

Dove rang a bell for asking instead of telling when it announced #ShowUs in a full-page ad in The New York Times that led with a mea culpa.

Not only did Dove hear and admit it sometimes gets things wrong, the company asked for input. It the kind of sound action required of brands that take positions on emotional, and sadly too often divisive subjects like race and gender. To us, listening is a real act of beauty within a noisy, turbulent world.

Sarah Dasher and Olivia Zed are recent graduates of the Boston University College of Communication’s Master of Science in Public Relations program. Zed is a graduate development professional at FleishmanHillard New York. Dasher is a communications intelligence consultant at Cisco.

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