Is the use of eating-disorder sufferers in Dove’s ad campaign an act of desperation?

Dove’s controversial plans to feature recovering eating-disorder
sufferers in the next phase of its Campaign for Real Beauty (MW last
week) have prompted some to question whether the Unilever-owned brand’s
award-winning advertising is running out of st…

doveDove’s controversial plans to feature recovering eating-disorder sufferers in the next phase of its Campaign for Real Beauty (MW last week) have prompted some to question whether the Unilever-owned brand’s award-winning advertising is running out of steam.

Dove has been using “real women” in its ads for four years, and the brand says it remains committed to the strategy, pointing to the positive response it has had to its ProAge (rather than anti-age) range, which is targeted at older women.

A Dove spokeswoman says the products have been “flying off the shelves” and, in a recent survey conducted by the brand, 95% of British women questioned said Dove was a brand that understood women and beauty.

But, while it is clear that women are buying into the ethos of the Dove brand, there is less evidence to suggest this is being reflected in sales. In 2006, Dove lagged behind Unilever’s sister brand, Vaseline Intensive Care, which has a 12.3% market share against Dove’s 9.6% in the UK. Rival beauty brands, including L’Oréal, St Ives and Olay, have experienced greater levels of growth than Dove since 2004, according to Mintel.

Tamara Gillan, an expert on women’s marketing at integrated agency SPF15, says Dove’s decision to abandon aspirational marketing has given the brand a defined position in the market.

But Gillan believes the key to success in this market is simply to be the most effective brand. “The top-selling products are the ones that work,” she adds. “Brands cannot hide anymore, they must deliver.” She points out that women have always recommended products to one another, but that thanks to the rise of user-generated content, an online community of hundreds of thousands of women can now share product reviews.

Image conscious
This could explain why Dove has focused on its brand image as a whole, with initiatives such as the “self-esteem fund”, which supplies free educational materials about body image to schools.

Euro RSCG managing partner Lisa Bamber, who works on the Alberto Culver account (which includes St Ives skin care products), says/ “The social responsibility position is a fantastic way to differentiate the brand, but it does put a lot of pressure on Dove.” She also warns: “I think they have to be careful, as self esteem is a difficult area and eating disorders are the same. It is great to take a moral stance, but what does it do for women?” 

Getting intimate
Adrian Goldthorpe, head of consumer innovation and strategy at brand consultancy Futurebrand, agrees that the eating disorder issue must be handled carefully.

“It has to be consumer led,” he says. “The success will depend upon finding brand advocates and relying upon intimacy messaging, such as online, where there is already some engagement with the brand. But I don’t think the campaign is getting tired – it still feels like a fresh idea and a fresh approach.” 

Goldthorpe adds that it would be “very dangerous” for Dove to turn its back on the “real beauty” concept in favour of a return to traditional aspirational advertising because it is a brand “defined by faith and trust”.

Looking to the future, experts believe Dove must find a way to establish a brand heritage from the Campaign for Real Beauty. A cursory glance at the forums on websites such as handbag.com proves that the campaign continues to provoke debate among women, which, as it approaches its fifth year, is no mean feat. But whether this will be enough to propel Dove to the top of its sector is another debate.

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