Dove's Campaign for Real Customers

A potent blend of branding, customer insight, and Web 2.0 has driven engagement and sales to astounding levels.

Faced with lackluster marketing and slipping sales figures at the hands of Procter & Gamble and other competitors, the brand managers at Unilever's Dove started asking how they could reinvigorate the brand.

They found answers in a place that consumer packaged goods companies often overlook, and that was in the customer base itself. By listening to consumers and finding out that they were frustrated with the waifish, porcelain-skinned supermodels they were supposed to be, Dove tapped into one of the most successful mass marketing campaigns ever. Supermodels were gone. Tapered, backlit hands and the quarter cup of cleansing cream were put out to pasture. In its place, real women in their underwear claimed that "real women have real curves." The Campaign for Real Beauty was on.

"By using images of ordinary women, not supermodels, in our marketing, we knew we could break through the clutter in the health and beauty space," says Kathy O'Brien, Dove marketing director. "It's no secret that the health and beauty products market is crowded, and raising brand awareness above the marketing clutter in this category has become remarkably difficult. For years, the beauty industry relied on idealized portrayals of women to engage female consumers; recently, however, this approach has grown flat. Dove realized that the only way to distinguish itself was by taking an unprecedented, somewhat controversial approach to its marketing: engaging female consumers on an emotional level by abandoning the traditionally cynical approach of presenting 'perfect' women as beauty role models."

That journey began in 2004. Three years down the road it's worth examining how Unilever and Dove managed to reposition a brand by creating what is arguably the most effective combination of innovative branding and customer strategy since the rise of integrated marketing. Companies outside the beauty industry, as well as outside mass marketing, can learn about brand authenticity, effective media, creative, customer engagement, and social media smarts from Dove's approach.

A customer-driven strategy

From an objective point of view it might look like O'Brien and her colleagues at their agency Ogilvy dreamed up their rebellious approach in a Madison Avenue boardroom. But by and large the campaign is the result of customer insight. It was prompted by an extensive global survey that found that the "narrow definition" of beauty that Unilever's own brands helped to create was affecting women's self-esteem. For example, only 2 percent of women around the world described themselves as beautiful and 81 percent in the United States strongly agreed that "the media and advertising set an unrealistic standard of beauty that most women can't ever achieve." Unilever conducted focus groups and interviews with the daughters, wives, and nieces of its executives to help sell the vision internally, because the plan for Dove was about as "antibranding" as the industry had seen.

The first ads dropped in September 2004 in the U.S., U.K., and EU. The approach was dramatic. Not only did the ads show scantily clad, full-figured women, they encouraged people to call toll-free numbers and go to the campaign's Web site to vote "fit" or "fat." The general public verdict was out. The FCC reported complaints, and media pundits screamed or applauded loudly. But the bottom line is that Dove struck a nerve among its customers and they showed up where it counted: at the cash register. Dove product sales grew 12.5 percent in 2005, according to Information Resources, and added a 10 percent hike in 2006. By consumer packaged goods standards, that is uncharted lift.

"It was a breakthrough in that it shifted from the usual mechanics in the beauty category," says Doug Rozen, vice president of interactive marketing at Carlson Marketing. "Most of [Unilever's] branding focused on pretty people, pretty hair. Not the everyday. What the Campaign for Real Beauty does is truly address the everyday. They also made it the people's campaign and not the brand's. For the people, by the people was front and center."

Along the way Dove revisited and crystallized what has quickly become the Promised Land for packaged goods marketers: authenticity. "When consumers want what's real, then management of the customer perception of authenticity becomes the primary new source of competitive advantage," write customer strategy and marketing experts Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore in Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want. "Organizations today must learn to understand, manage, and excel at rendering authenticity."

One of the dominant consumer sensibilities for authentic customer experiences, according to the book, is "purchasing on the basis
of conforming to self-image." Appealing to that sensibility is one of the reasons that Dove nailed it, says coauthor Jim Gilmore. "Brilliant. Without a doubt," he says. "Marketing and advertising have become promise-making machines, but I believe that
a brand needs to be the experience of a promise. What Dove is promising is not so much that the product is authentic, but promising
that how we appeal to you is authentic."

A social networking groundswell

As Dove and agency Ogilvy found the authenticity they were looking for, and sales responded, it became apparent that the Campaign for Real Beauty was a brand-driven trifecta: customer retention, customer acquisition, and word of mouth. Its social media usage from the beginning has been huge. In 2005 the campaign delivered more than
650 million media impressions. Since that time has attracted 4.5 million unique visitors who have entered messages or blogged on the site. That doesn't count the millions of entries on blogs dealing with beauty industry issues, self-esteem, self-image, and even eating disorders.

It also doesn't count the millions of YouTube videos and the social media sites that Dove created during 2007 to extend the "campaign" into an "assault." Dove used social media and socially responsible initiatives to reach out to a new customer group: younger women. It also took its emotional connection beyond individual self-esteem and linked it to the bonds between mother and daughter. These extensions started in September 2006, after a media furor erupted when Madrid Fashion Week organizers banned ultra-thin models from their runways.

In response, Dove created a viral video called "Evolution," which showed how the beauty industry fosters unrealistic expectations among females. On YouTube alone it was watched 12 million times. Dove also established a Self-Esteem Fund to support education programs for young women. It has set a goal of five million participants over the next three years.

The YouTube strategy continued in October 2006, more dramatically. It portrayed a young girl barraged by graphic images of anorexic women and underdressed lingerie models. "Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does," was the tagline. Once again, the idea is grounded in customer feedback about the original campaign and other customer research. It found that as many as
40 percent of young women ages 13-22 have some level of eating disorder. More than 58 percent of them describe themselves in negative terms and the majority think celebrities have "perfect bodies."

"[Dove has] managed to explode some of the mythology around the beauty industry. But I have to stress that it's very difficult to do this well. It's a goal that many companies have been attracted to," says Dina Mayzlin, associate professor of marketing at the Yale School of Management, and author of several published studies on social media. "There is only so much manipulation of the social media that you can achieve. People want to talk about something they usually find interesting and in their best interest."

Use caution when stirring the pot

People have certainly wanted to talk about Dove and the issues it's dramatizing. As is the standard in American media, not 100 percent of that talk is positive. For all the social contribution the campaign has generated there are some naysayers. The first salvo of criticism comes from the ad industry itself. An Ad Age story called "Soft Soap" saidthe campaign was showing "signs of aging." Dove's growth rate for 2007 has settled into the 2 percent range, which any other brand would call a good year. Unilever does not comment on specific sales figures.

Unilever has come under deserved fire for being inconsistent about its "real beauty" stance. For example, campaigns for Unilever brand Axe, the body care brand for young men, feature scantily clad women who are more svelte and exponentially younger than Dove's heroes. It has also launched a campaign that humorously suggests that Axe can wash away sexual "sin" and the "residue" of one-night stands.

Then there is the bottom-line awareness that ultimately Dove's campaign is meant to sell boxes and bottles of products. Does that taint its success? Will younger customers start to throw stones at a campaign that started its own rebellion?

"Some say Dove is having a polarizing effect on the industry, being called everything from pretentious, manipulative, self-serving, and hypocritical," claims the "Experience Curve" ad blog. Amy Juseel, author of the "Shaping Youth" blog, criticizes part of the campaign, but also sees both sides. "I just feel Dove did a grand ol' job getting attention, whether to sell soap for themselves, build awareness as a bonus, or plant a seed among a few of my dear colleagues, that there truly is a 'trickle down impact' on kids... Point is, it's working to stir the pot and open new dialog in 'the age of conversation,'" she writes. "If I had one message to our colleagues it would be, 'Hey people, this is not all CLIO-Cannes statue stuff...there are real faces behind the messages here, and kids are getting sucked into the vortex of shoulds and coulds and wannabes and Dove did a dang good job of pointing this out.' So, for that I applaud it, despite all the numerous contradictions behind the brandwashing of parent company Unilever's skin lightening agents, 'Fair & Lovely,' Slim Fast, Axe...After all, 'Real beauty' is in the eye of the beholder, n'est-ce pas? Campaign, or not."

As Dove weathers criticism from its industry and its astronomical sales increases start to plateau, it's important to know that the Campaign for Real Beauty has outlived the hype surrounding grandmothers in their skivvies. It attracted and has kept real customers.

Is the momentum Dove has created sustainable? Yale's Mayzlin believes Dove will need to come up with something different to keep engaging customers. Carlson's Rozen sees continued success for the campaign "as long as it evolves and doesn't get washed up in its past success."

For its part the Dove team isn't saying what's next. Mike Hemmingway, global managing director, Ogilvy, hints at having more fun with the messaging, but Dove's antibrand and anti-industry moves indicate it will continue to follow the voice of the customer.

"We will continue to use our brand to share a more democratic view of beauty through communication resources and product launches," O'Brien says. "As long as we continue to touch the lives of women around the world, we are living our mission."