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In the most sweeping and ambitious advertising effort in the company's history, Unilever PLC launched a global ad campaign in 2003 that aimed not just to sell its new line of Dove brand products but also, in the words of Dove's U.S. marketing director, Philippe Harousseau, to "broaden the narrow and stereotypical view of beauty." Unilever was significantly expanding its Dove line from simple cleansing solutions (soaps, facial cleaners, and shower gels) to include deodorants, hair-care products, and more importantly, a whole new product category for the company: skin firming and lifting creams. To promote both the new products and the new idea of beauty, Dove and its ad agency, Ogilvy & Mather of Chicago, chose to use real women in the advertisements instead of models, and they selected women whose looks or weight were not typical for beauty-industry advertisements.
Dubbed the "Campaign for Real Beauty," it began as an outdoor campaign with billboards and mass-transit ads but eventually expanded to include print ads and TV spots, culminating in a 45-second spot that aired during the 2006 Super Bowl—all at an estimated total cost of over $100 million worldwide. The initial billboards in the United States showed six women, sizes 6-14, dressed only in white undergarments against a plain white background. (The rollout in each of the more than 10 countries where the campaign appeared followed a parallel course, with six women scouted locally and featured on billboards.) Equally important to the success of the campaign was Dove's interactive website, which offered descriptions of the product line and live discussion forums where women could discuss their feelings about the campaign.
By any standard the campaign was a smashing success. Not only did it help to increase Dove's global sales by 13 to 25 percent, but it also generated a phenomenal amount of media coverage. There was some backlash in the press, but the majority of critics found little fault with the campaign, and most lauded its willingness to use real women instead of idealized (and practically unattainable) icons of beauty. Industry awards were plentiful as well, making the campaign well worth the company's significant investment.
Dove soap emerged from product development research into ways of treating burn victims during World War II, and in the 1950s it was originally launched by Unilever in the United States as a moisturizing soap. The simple Dove soap bar was repositioned as early as 1957 as a "beauty bar" aimed at women with the spin that regular soaps would dry out their skin during bathing, while the Dove bar would not. From that point on such market differentiation and exclusive targeting of female consumers
It was not until 2001 that the Dove brand began to expand beyond skin cleansers into other personal-care categories, namely hair care, antiperspirants and deodorants, and finally, in 2004, "firming" lotions to tighten and smooth the skin. Unilever never abandoned its use of the term "Beauty Bar" for the Dove product, and the concept of beauty was the thread that connected its advertising for more than 50 years. It came as no surprise, then, that the conventional definition of beauty and the issue of a woman's self-image would become the thrust of Unilever's global campaign to introduce its new line of products aimed at women. Having spent half a century trying to associate its products with an abstract concept, Dove chose to take the bold step of redefining the historical notion of beauty (as depicted in advertising) by featuring women in its advertisements who looked radically different from the models traditionally used to promote beauty products.
The Dove brand of products had always been aimed exclusively at women. (Unilever had other lines of grooming products specifically for men.) The "Campaign for Real Beauty" did not try to appeal to a group beyond that which was already in the company's sights, but it did set out to attract even more women between the ages of 18 and 45 in a new way. With the introduction in 2004 of a new line of skin-care products, the company moved beyond mere cleansers and entered a new product category aimed at women who were dissatisfied with the appearance of their skin, whether it was too saggy, blemished, wrinkled, or just not firm enough. Such products were typically the domain of more upscale cosmetics companies, such as Clinique, Lancôme, and Chanel. Dove was not seeking to lure high-end customers away from these boutique brands (a stretch-mark cream from Clinique, for instance, sold for $95 in 2005, while Dove's Intensive Firming Cream sold for only $7.99); instead, Dove sought to reach its established customer demographic with a new product line and chose a controversial ad campaign to garner as much media and consumer attention as possible.
The new line of skin creams was aimed squarely at women whose assessment of their own skin's appearance was less than optimal—which, in practical terms, meant just about all women. To verify this assumption Dove, in conjunction with the research consulting firm the Downing Street Group, commissioned a study that surveyed some 3,000 women in more than ten countries to find out just how they felt about their own appearance. The extensive results, published as The Dove Report:
Challenging Beauty, stated that, among other things, only 2 percent of women considered themselves "beautiful," while only 9 percent felt comfortable describing themselves as "attractive." The report's introduction said, "our vision is that a new definition of beauty will free women from self-doubt and encourage them to embrace their real beauty." Armed with this database of information about the self-images of women worldwide, Dove worked with Ogilvy to create an ad campaign that strove to subvert the expectations the public had about beauty in both advertising and daily life.
Dove's main brand competitors for skin and body-care products worldwide were Nivea (made by Beiersdorf AG) and Neutrogena (made by Johnson & Johnson). In 2005 Nivea's European market share was 20 percent; Dove's was 5.5 percent. U.S. market shares were more balanced among the three rivals. In the same year Nivea launched a pan-European media campaign, complete with a theme song, "New Days," by the up-and-coming German band Asher Lane. The song became a hit in Europe and was released as a CD single that was available for purchase from Nivea's website as well as at music stores; the packaging sported a sticker with the Nivea logo. The campaign's main TV spot depicted a wide cross section of people—young and old, male and female—in myriad situations (for instance, bathing, shaving, running, exercising, playing, or relaxing) casually using a range of Nivea products while "New Days" played. The approach was far more typical than Unilever's and far less controversial. With its established lead in European product sales, Nivea had no stake in rocking the boat. Dove, on the other hand, had little to lose.
In fall 2003, armed with the exhaustive information from The Dove Report, Ogilvy and Unilever began what would become a worldwide media campaign, starting with a series of billboards in the United Kingdom. The ads featured an unretouched photograph of six women of varying sizes and ages, wearing nothing but plain white bras and panties, standing...