Dove, the personal care brand of Unilever, recently launched the face test campaign in India (O&M are the the creative minds behind it). The campaign started off with encouraging women to use Dove soap on one-side of the face and a regular soap on the other. It intends to drive home the point that Dove makes the skin softer than other soaps in the market. In the follow-up, now a commercial has been launched showing testimonials by women about their experience of the face test and display of agreement that the Dove side was softer.

The campaign itself is laudable and best way to convince the customer about the product’s value proposition. However, strikingly and interestingly, all the testimonials are given by women who are gori – ie. they have a fair complexion.This anomaly is particularly noticeable because Dove does not explicitly promise whitening of skin; only softening of skin. A rather simple (or simplistic?) explanation is that those who provided testimonials happened to be fair. But, for this to happen some highly paid people would have to really not do anything. It would be safe to assume that randomness did not cause this anomaly.

Having dumped the randomness argument, we now have a case where testimonials were taken from both fair and dark complexioned people and yet the striking disconnect. What could possibly explain this then?

The White Feel

The imagery of Dove brand has been created around the color white – probably due to its implication of purity. Although now they have included a shade of blue in the shampoo range, the soap is still organized around white. The fairness of women who gave testimonials is probably just another way to accentuate the brand feel.

This kind of brand identity accentuation is fraught with risks. One of the primary risks is clearly of alienating the dark-complexioned customers. This consideration offers some important hypotheses:

  1. Fairness is considered an aspirational trait and hence the risk of alienating dark-complexioned customers is low
    • The attraction of Indians towards fair skin is a well-known (as also an adequately debated) phenomenon. Dove may be banking upon this phenomenon to mitigate this risk of alienation.
    • While playing on psychological biases is not new for any Corporate, it’s somewhat hypocritical for a brand that wonders why our perception of beauty is distorted and vouches for real beauty (India is not in the list of countries).
    • All the same, Dove may not be at a major disadvantage if Indian consumer’s attraction to fair-skin outweighs the sense of exclusion that the commercial creates
  2. Dark-complexioned customers (most likely a high proportion of Indian population) are not the target segment for Dove
    • The TG for Dove may exclude the dark-complexioned women. Not that dark-complexioned women have no need for a soft skin, but they may be excluded for other reasons.
    • Dove is probably the most costly soap and has always been positioned as a premium brand in India. Thus, it can be argued that Dove would be bought mostly by higher income groups. Is it possible that folks at HUL figured out that most women in higher income households happen to be fair?
    • People in South India have darker complexion (an evolutionary adaptation found in most equatorial and tropical regions of the world) compared to North India (an evolutionary adaptation found in most temperate regions of the world). The brand Dove may have a lower acceptance in South India as compared to North India and hence the discrepancy
    • In sum, the commercials have focused on strengthening appeal of Dove to its TG

Following the Parent

It is possible that Dove in India is emulating the parent’s actions abroad. Browse the list of countries on Dove.com and one would observe that most of the countries in the list are dominated by non-dark complexioned population. Naturally, Dove’s commercials abroad have had only fair-complexioned women. Perhaps, to save costs by reusing campaign themes or to avoid dilution the brand identity, HUL has chosen to follow the parent Unilever in promoting Dove. Whether, this is the best approach to promoting a product as fantastic as Dove is – in a market of over 300 million households, where HUL nearly owns the FMCG distribution – is debatable.

In Conclusion

It is tough task to conclude which of these (or if all of these) were the exact decision criteria behind led to the observed anomaly. What is relatively easy to infer from the observation and hypotheses which emerge from it, is by creating such gaps in brand perception for Dove, HUL isn’t helping itself or its shareholders.

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