It can be hard to remember, but at one point, Dove just sold soap. Plain, uncontroversial soap that didn't have any ideological baggage. Fast forward to today, when you have to sit through three minutes of one of the company's viral ads before a brand name shows up (and products are often never even seen).
Thirty years ago, Dove's ads were more conventional. That is, they emphasized their product and what it did. To this day, anyone who watched TV in the mid-1980s can recite that Dove is one-quarter moisturizing cream.
How did Dove go from a soap to a brand that makes you love your body? It's not exactly that Dove suddenly cared about women crafting healthy body images. Rather, that new branding was a byproduct of a corporation-wide growth strategy.
In 2000, Dove parent company Unilever crafted a strategy plan called the "Path to Growth," in which it cut down 1,600 brands to 400, according to a 2007 Harvard Business School case study from HBS Professor John Deighton. A few of the lucky surviving labels were selected to be what are called "Masterbrands" — brands that were "mandated to serve as umbrella identities over a range of product forms," as Deighton puts it. Dove was one of them.
In other words, Dove would now make the jump from being just a soap to being a brand that covered all sorts of products: shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, and so on. And that jump into lotion and hair mousse is why Dove became synonymous with "real" women posing in their undies.
No longer could Dove simply advertise itself as the best moisturizing soap on the market. And instead of trying to craft a complicated brand image that simultaneously made the company appear to be the best at hair care, skin care, and controlling body odor, Unilever decided to take a different tack.
"Unilever decided, instead, that Dove should stand for a point of view," Deighton writes.
All that was left to do was figure out what, exactly, Dove's point of view would be. Dove's global brand director, Silvia Lagnado, found it when her research found that women worldwide were discontent with the way "young, white, blonde, and thin" were constantly equated with beauty. After consulting with leading experts in psychiatry and women's views of beauty, Dove honed its message and found a new niche: advertising to "real women." Soon, unconventionally pretty ladies were all over the advertising, telling the world about the very real tragedy of women not believing they were beautiful.
Dove has ridden the Campaign for Real Beauty wave for around a decade now, but there are signs that people are growing disenchanted. The company's 2013 "Real Beauty Sketches" ad was one advertisement that drew consumer backlash.
The problem with Dove's message that women need to have more confidence in their looks, critics say, is that it still upholds the idea that women's beauty is of utmost importance, albeit in a warm and fuzzy way. In the sketches ad, others have argued, it's clear that the (mostly white and slender) women subjects equate beauty with being even more slender, not to mention younger.
Some (myself included) also pointed out that Unilever is selling "real beauty" even while it sells products like Slim-Fast and Axe, a line whose identity is in part built on the idea that body spray is irresistible to well-endowed, bikini-clad women. As a result of the earnest ad, parodies sprang up, including a simple gender-reversal take, as well as a hilariously NSFW remake.
The backlash to the company's "beauty patch" ad has been quick and harsh. Though Dove appears to have gone for a more diverse crowd this time around, critics have found many other weaknesses. New York Magazine called it "garbage," lambasting Dove for making women seem "dumb" by duping them with a faux scientific study (and by showing them laugh, not rage, in response). Fast Company called the ad "condescending," instead recommending a (rather funny) parody ad.
Dove, of course, isn't the only company that has taken criticism for selling products by using a woman-friendly message. Pantene's "Labels Against Women" ad saw similar blowback from consumers who saw it as manipulative. And Goldieblox, a toy company that says it sells "engineering toys for girls," likewise made some commentators wonder about the ethics of selling feminism.
Not that everyone agrees. For his part, Deighton doesn't believe Dove has overplayed the real beauty hand just yet. To him, the ads are "sanctimonious and lachrymose, yes, and eventually it will wear out, but I see no evidence that we've reached that point," he says in an email.
Once that point is reached, however, the question for Dove may soon be what sort of new "point of view" it wants to sell (alongside soap and lotion).