Mark Ritson believes that every Marketer needs to know the Dove case study. In a recent  LinkedIn post, he explained that their campaign for real beauty was one of Unilever’s finest moments of brand strategy and its 20 year success story answers many of the questions that brands struggle with today. 

In 2004, when Dove launched the campaign, I was 16. Growing up I was conditioned to notice my flaws. Frizzy hair, bad skin, you name it, you could buy something to fix it. When you’re such a vulnerable age, you’re more likely to believe the promises of marketing, even if deep down, you know that they’re promoting a standard of beauty that is unattainable. When the campaign launched I noticed a distinct shift in how beauty ideals were portrayed. People’s mindsets were beginning to shift. It was one of the first times I realised that marketing had the power to bring about positive change. 

I spoke with Daryl Fielding, who worked at Ogilvy and developed and delivered the campaign to learn more about one of the most successful marketing campaigns in history. 

When did you begin working on the Dove account?

I began in 2001. I’m probably the only person apart from a couple of people at Unilever, that was there right from the beginning. I can still remember the names of every woman that appeared in the campaign. The way that many people speak about the development of the campaign makes it sound like it was the logical work of a bunch of geniuses. I can assure you that this couldn’t be further from the truth. The process was a bloody mess.  

I want to share the real story behind the campaign. People can feel discouraged if things feel messy when working on a new campaign, and they shouldn’t. Often great campaigns are the result of big leaps of faith. The thing that I find the most annoying is the myth that Unilever did a piece of research that found that only 2% of women thought they were beautiful and the campaign for real beauty was born. That piece of research was done as a PR stunt. The campaign had already been running for a year before this research was conducted. The first iterations of the campaign for real beauty didn’t even reference ‘real beauty.’ Contrary to popular belief, that insight was not the inspiration to the campaign. 

The real insight came when a group of women working on the campaign were looking at ads from our competitors and remarking that they made us feel like shit. We could clearly see that they were playing on our insecurities. We wondered if that was universally true. 

We had a hypothesis that the traditional depiction of beauty in advertising was having a detrimental effect on our confidence and wellbeing. We spoke to psychologists and a famous researcher in women’s self-esteem called Naomi Wolf, who all confirmed there was a plethora of scientific evidence showing that exposure to this type of media reduces a woman’s self-esteem. 

We knew that we were onto something. Knowing that we had to launch a campaign worldwide, we immersed ourselves in learning about different cultural beauty stereotypes. We discovered that age and weight are universal ideas that women didn’t feel that they measured up to. Still, we also discovered nuances of beauty ideologies in different countries. For example, in Brazil, if you have very short tightly curled hair it is commonly referred to as “feet in the kitchen hair.” This is a derogatory insult that inferred you were of a lower social status. Knowing this, we decided to find women with this type of hair to feature in our ads. People in Britain may not have noticed the significance of the casting, but it was a big deal for people in Brazil. 

We spent the best part of a year learning about beauty stereotypes, cultural differences, and the psychology of self-esteem. This is why it is so dispiriting when people talk about Doves campaign for real beauty and imply that the agency recommended putting some fat girls on an ad and sold it to Dove. This wasn’t the case at all. It took a long time to convince senior stakeholders at Dove that this disruptive strategy was right for them. It then took a further year to get the campaign executions right and we had plenty of failures along the way. We sadly had to bin the photos from the first photoshoot. We found a shop assistant from Croydon called Charlotte and we sent her to Paris to have her photos taken. But when we saw the images, we knew we couldn’t use them because the photographer had made her look like a fashion model. 

What were the challenges that Dove faced at the time?

Dove had a very clear business strategy. They had commissioned a lot of research about the brand and learnt that most consumers liked Dove products but didn’t think much of their advertising. At the time, most of Dove’s advertising was based on testimonials which were formulaic and a bit dull. Another issue that Dove had is that their consumers tended to only buy one Dove product, their soap, or deodorants. They didn’t shop across the whole Dove range. This affected their ability to grow, which was having an impact on Unilever. We needed to help Dove drive more cross-category penetration. We did this by creating a more resonant, contemporary and relevant brand that we promoted with a distinctive communications campaign.

Can you tell us a bit about how the campaign for real beauty was developed once you had the hypothesis?

Well, it was quite interesting. When we explained our hypothesis and strategy to women, they would say, “It’s fantastic.” If we explained it to men, they would say, “God, what do you mean, you don’t think you’re beautiful?” They were completely and utterly baffled by our insight. One senior stakeholder completely misunderstood the campaign’s spirit and intention and remarked that he thought that this strategy wouldn’t work for attractive women. You can imagine that the team was not exactly complemented by his perspective. To his credit, he went and spoke to his wife, who was (and still is) gorgeous. He asked her if she thought she was beautiful, and two hours later, when she had stopped telling him how she felt about her looks, he understood. He understood that if his gorgeous wife felt like this, our insight would resonate with all women. He was very humble. He came back and told us that he was completely wrong and that he was absolutely behind us. We had our first convert. 

Despite having converted our first stakeholder, we knew that we had a long way to go. At the time, most of the senior leaders at Unilever were men, and they were the ones we had to convince. Dove was such an important brand for Unilever that they had to be confident that this was the right thing to do. 

To get everyone on board, I had an idea. We’d never be able to get away with anything like this today. I believed that we needed to interview the wives and daughters of the senior stakeholders. We asked HR for a list of names and phone numbers for 30 people. When we spoke with them, we explained that we were working on a covert project. We asked if they’d send us a picture and speak to us about the image that they had of themselves. With these interviews, polaroids and quotes, we created a powerful video set against the backdrop of Joe Crokers ‘you are so beautiful to me.’ 

When we met with the stakeholders, we would explain what our strategic approach was. We’d talk about our research, interviews with psychologists, and so on. At the end of our pitch, we’d play the video that featured their families. As you can imagine, this came as a complete surprise. There were a few tears in the room and when the film finished most said that Dove had to do this.

Taking the time to get senior stakeholders on board is often the thing that people often neglect when developing a brand or marketing strategy. I’ve seen it done well, and I’ve seen it done badly. I’ve learnt that you can never do too much to land something new with an organisation, I still feel that people do too little of it.

What part of the campaign were you the most proud of?

One of my proudest moments was when the PR started to land and seeing the public’s reaction to it. We had one magazine editor who wrote that she hated the campaign. She was inundated with readers letters and then published a retraction. I can’t remember which magazine, unfortunately. But I think the public support for what Dove was trying to achieve was possibly one of my most rewarding moments. Also the campaign achieved its original objective. In 2006, two-thirds of Dove’s sales were generated by people who bought more than one Dove product, this was around double the number from 2003, before the start of the campaign.

I’m also very proud of some of the lesser-known work that Dove did during that time. We set up the Dove fund, and went into school and spoke about the beauty industry and how images are retouched. 

By 2030, Dove hopes to have helped ¼ billion people through their educational programmes. As a society, we’re becoming much more conscious of the damage done by insulting people about their looks. And it’s really funny, actually, because I’m six foot one until I was in my mid-30s, I always thought being tall was ugly because I was teased so much about it when I was young. I’m so pleased that the narrative around beauty is changing.

What would be the one piece of advice that you’d give to brand and marketing managers today?

My advice is to really understand what a brand really is all about, and the leavers that you can use to build it commercially. It is important to not allow an organisation to persist in the view that ‘brand’ is a comms job, or that brand simply refers to its image. It is your responsibility to help people understand and embrace the fuller definition of brand, which is that a brand is the combination of product and reputation.

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