How Dove Changed the Rules of the Beauty Game

How Dove Changed the Rules of the Beauty Game

Library Catagory: 

Whenever we explained Dove's new brand positioning to anyone, they always said, 'Oh what a great idea.' However, we couldn't seem to develop any creative work that did the new positioning justice. We'd been through months of creative development and research and had nothing to show for it. A bit of self-doubt was creeping in. Maybe it's a great positioning in theory but not in practice? Maybe, the inner voices whispered, the positioning isn't right.

Six months later all doubts had been dispelled. We were the proud creators of a much talked-about and much loved campaign.

This article describes that journey from doubt to celebration. It's a story of two halves. The first half will tell the story of how the positioning was developed. The second will tell the rather more tortuous, warts-and-all story of how we eventually managed to turn the positioning into compelling creative work.


Unilever launched Dove in the US in 1957 as a bar of soap. Over the next 40-odd years it grew by launching into other countries and other 'personal care' categories. This expansion meant that by 2001 Dove had fundamentally changed. Soap represented less than half its sales.

This change prompted the client and agency team to reflect on the future. What had been a soap brand was becoming something else. But what? Trend analysis of the categories Dove was in suggested that the potential lay with shampoo and conditioners and, ultimately, face care. Interestingly, women think about these sorts of products very differently from soap. The latter is about being clean and spruce. Shampoo and face creams are about grooming, about tarting yourself up, about, literally, putting your best face forward.

Shifting the Brand's Axis

We needed to stop thinking of Dove as a soap brand and start thinking of it as a beauty brand. However, sober reflection led the team to conclude that in many ways the last thing the world needed was another beauty brand. The world is awash with them. How on earth could Dove be a distinctive voice in this over populated world?

The brand team was predominately female. Each member of the team had the intuitive sense that the way other beauty brands behaved wasn't quite right (in the moral sense, not the commercial sense). So, what was wrong? It was the type of beauty promoted by these brands – it was all about a physical ideal that most of us fall far short of. This made the members of the global team feel miserable about themselves. It's like being a mortal in the company of the gods. You feel like substandard goods.

Moving From Intuitive Hunch to Proven Fact

The team had to find out if women around the world shared their feelings. But it's not easy getting people to admit to feelings of inferiority. So, instead of doing a piece of global consumer research the global account director (who was doubling up as the planner) trawled through academic research looking at women's relationship with depictions of beauty in the media. The research confirmed the group's hypothesis. A woman's self-esteem is often diminished by the images of physical perfection surrounding her. Fuelled by these findings, the global account director contacted and visited academics and counsellors working in this area. Susie Orbach, Naomi Wolf and Gloria Steinem confirmed the damage done by the media culture of perfection we all live in. (see Figure 1)

Changing the Rules of Beauty from Feel Bad to Feel Good

The client and agency team decided that Dove was literally on a mission – to change the way that women viewed beauty and themselves. A mission was articulated:

'To make more women feel more beautiful every day, by widening today's stereotypical view of beauty and inspiring them to take great care of themselves.'

And the brand's perspective on beauty was laid out, in what became known internally as Dove's beauty theory:

'Dove makes it clear it sees beauty in imperfections and doesn't worship stereotypes. Dove's beauty is self-defined, beauty with brains, democratic. Dove recognises not only the exterior, but also the woman within. There is depth of character behind the eyes, a strength and vitality of personality showing through.'

We also made a decision to use ordinary women (as opposed to models) in our advertising. Historically, Dove had featured ordinary women in its advertising. In those commercials ordinary women talked about how Dove had allowed them to get nearer to the picture-perfect ideal. We decided to turn this on its head and make a positive point about these women being real – with all the wonderful idiosyncratic things that being real brings with it. From that point on we decided to use real women in a real way.


We wanted to develop a pure brand campaign that would articulate Dove's beauty theory. We believed the heart of the problem was women's self-perception.

What advertising needed to do was reassure women that, contrary to what they might think, they are in fact, attractive. This reassurance would raise their self-esteem. The following creative brief and proposition was written.

The Proposition. A call to action. Seeking your own version of beauty will get you much closer to beauty than seeking stereotypical perfection.

Reason to Believe. Real types are so much more interesting and attractive than stereotypical flawless perfection.

The Mandate. The advertising must use real women as opposed to models.

Over the next few months three different campaigns were developed: Beauty Has a Million Faces One of Them Is Yours, Give Your Beauty Wings and Let's Make Peace With Beauty.

Understandably, given the creative brief, each idea had shades of the self-help manual about it. Each sought to help women see themselves with fresh eyes; each exhorted women to stop judging themselves so harshly; each gave hints and tips to women so that they would see the beauty that was already theirs.

As each idea was developed we explored it in qualitative creative development research. Unfortunately, women were not impressed. They found our creative ideas patronising. The tone was a bit happy-clappy. Critically, women didn't realise that Dove was trying to change existing, widely held definitions of beauty. They assumed we were trying to change them, not the world they lived in.

It was time for a re-brief.

Enter Inspiration, Stage Left

Our top-down approach seemed to lead to rather didactic, theoretical, and therefore distant, work. So we decided instead to work bottom up – product first, wrapped in beauty theory.

The first product brief that popped up once this decision had been taken was for Dove Firming. Women apply these products to their hips, bums and thighs in particular because those bits are prone to sagging and to the dreaded cellulite. So, the straightforward proposition was that Dove Firming tightens loose, bumpy, orange-peel bits. However, we wanted to tell this story in a way that would also help broaden definitions of beauty and so be true to the brand's mission.

Inspiration came from re-reading all the research that had been done. One theme jumped out at us. Women hated the advertising for these sorts of products.

'That Girl Doesn't Need a Cellulite Product, She Needs a Square Meal'

The reason they hated it was simple. The other brands used stick-thin, superbly toned young women in their 20s. The implication was that 'you too can look like this' if only you use the product. They found this promise farcical at a literal and physical level. And they found it patronising at a psychological level. Why, they bemoaned, are we always being told that thin is the only way to be. Why are slinky little hips the only hips to have? This was our way in. Dove would challenge the current definitions of beauty by championing the idea that a beautiful figure doesn't have to be size 10. A fuller, more voluptuous figure can also be beautiful. We wrote the following brief:

The Proposition. With Dove Firming women can show off their curves.

Reason to Believe. Dove celebrates women's bodies as they are because being curvy is essentially female. Dove has an expert range of firming products.

The Mandate. This advertising must use real women not models.

When we briefed the creative teams we plastered the walls with competitive advertising. The parade of trim waifs seemed ludicrous and our proposition seemed refreshing in comparison.

The creative work that emerged included the powerful ad on page 44. We instinctively knew this work had the capacity to break the mould of beauty advertising and broaden current definitions of beauty. Having successfully captured the brand's positioning in product advertising we turned again to the brief for the pure brand campaign.

Turning the Brief Outwards Not Inwards

Developing the Firming campaign had taught us three critical things.

  1. Exhorting women to believe in their own looks is counterproductive because how women judge themselves is a consequence not a cause. It's a consequence of the imagery that women consume, each and every day. The enemy is without, not within. If we want women to believe in their own looks we need to give them radically different depictions of beauty to aspire to.
  2. Alternative depictions of beauty touch a nerve if they are antidotes to the particular stereotypes that women feel pressured by. The Firming campaign was powerful because it offered an alternative to the tyranny of thin. (Both women and journalists responded well. The resulting PR was extremely valuable). So, we went back through existing research to identify the stereotypes women think they are most crushed by. Internet discussion boards were also valuable sources of discontent. We established a hit list: you have to be young to be beautiful; you have to be tall; you have to have flawless skin, etc.
  3. Using ordinary women in our advertising wasn't a whim, it was strategically critical. The women in the Firming campaign are palpably people like you and me. They are the living embodiment of a more democratic, inclusive notion of beauty. So we wrote six pledges that outlined the sort of women we would use in our advertising and how we would use them. Brim full of confidence and armed with these insights we penned a new brief for the pure brand campaign.

The Proposition. A campaign idea that questions the images pumped out by the beauty industry by showing genuinely stunning beauty comes in lots of shapes, sizes and forms.

Reason to Believe. If you believe what the beauty industry tries to tell us, beautiful is only beautiful if it's 5'11'', eight stone, with long hair, ideally blond, with a perfectly symmetrical face, flawless complexion and under the age of 30. And yet, all around us is evidence to the contrary.

The Mandate. You must use real women who conform to the pledges. was Born

The work that emerged from the brief exceeded our expectations.

The work is eye-catching, compelling and loved by women in every one of the dozen or so countries in which it has appeared. Most importantly, it clearly positions Dove as the brand that is challenging the current, stifling beauty ideal and replacing it with a more refreshing, feel-good alternative. The resulting PR means that this critical message has been amplified two-fold.

Equally impressive is Unilever's genuine commitment to beauty theory. It is not just a marketing strategy. It extends to grass-roots action. Unilever created the Dove SelfEsteem Fund, a charitable trust that works with groups who work with women, helping them grow as individuals and learn to withstand the blandishments of the air-brushed, impossibly perfect media culture we all (still) live in.


Credit belongs to all the following people. From Unilever: Klaus Arntz, Silvia Lagnado, Alessandro Manfredi and Angela Nelissen. From Ogilvy: Daryl Fielding, Joerg Herzog, Dennis Lewis, Tracey Rainey and Mel White.

This article featured in Market Leader, Winter 2005.



Author: The Marketing Society
Posted: 10 Jul 2012
Rate this article:
Average: 5 (1 vote)
View/Post Comments (0) X

Similar Articles

A former forensic artist for the San Jose police department met a series of women and asked each to describe the way the...


That pouting blonde in the yellow bikini has attracted a lot of attention. Nothing new there. But the row about Protein ...