Commentary

How Unilever Risked Too Much on Dove to Appeal to Women

May 15, 2017

Unilever recently unveiled a line of Dove Body Wash bottles in the U.K. designed to evoke various shapes of women’s figures. There is a tall, thin one; a shorter, rather rotund one; and a third with seemingly no distinctive characteristics whatsoever (and which one is that, Unilever? Normal? Average? Control sample? Each cascading answer is worse).

Understandably, the backlash was swift as women around the world took to social media to criticize this experiment. Changing the Dove name to “Pigeon” would have gone over better.

How much damage has been done to the Dove brand equity, one of Unilever’s (un) crown jewels? While difficult to quantify, the answer certainly is: a lot. The brand, known for its famously empathetic “Real Beauty” campaign, now has an untold number of women who see this as tarnish to the brand.

The Dove kerfuffle is a cautionary tale about the downside risk to which corporations expose themselves when they lean too heavily on their core brands as housing for new products and designs.

Parking innovation ideas within a short list of power brands is a practice that began, in earnest, in the early 2000s. You can understand the rationale: Historically, creating new brands is expensive. And if you have a powerful brand, like Dove, why not use it? That’s where the problems start.

For example, Kellogg’s Co. (k) became so enamored by its core Special K brand that a huge proportion of new product ideas throughout the company were eventually force-fit into that platform. Special K is now a multidimensional empire well beyond breakfast cereal, but the “Special K or bust” strategy was also creatively limiting. Big brands are great at telling internal innovation teams what to do, but they just as firmly instruct what they are not to do. Independent upstarts aren’t so hamstrung, and consumers—especially millennials—are increasingly taking to the ideas they perceive to be more authentic and fresher.

Kraft Heinz’s (khc) Mio, the colorful water enhancer, was one notable exception to the new brand drought of the dark 2000s. The company, Kraft Foods at the time, hadn’t successfully launched a true breakthrough new brand since DiGiorno pizza decades earlier—and came this close to missing the Mio opportunity, too. The underlying technology was originally conceived as a Crystal Light flanker, which—had it been implemented under that banner—would not have had nearly the impact achieved by the gleaming new Mio brand in the sea of other Crystal Light products.

See also: Dove Body Wash Bottles Show How Using Feminism To Sell Products Can Backfire

Today’s big marketers need more Mios. They ought to begin creating new brands again. Aside from mitigating the risks to their core assets, doing so helps them play catch-up in a consumer sector that is marked by highly creative new brands being formed on the outside. For the corporation, freeing themselves of what I call “Core Branditis” is a win-win for the parent company and the brand.

Procter & Gamble (pg) just recently launched Spin, a new laundry and dry-cleaning delivery service, and new brand. The corporate innovation and new ventures class I co-teach at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management visited the Spin team’s skunkworks in Chicago earlier this week, and talked about the branding decisions for this innovation. “Spin” is clearly the lead mark, but carries the powerful Tide mark as an indication of source, which amounts to a smart hedge. If Spin succeeds, as I believe it will, it might eventually be able to live as a brand on its own. And if it doesn’t, the risks to Tide are contained.

Another strategy big marketers should consider is using external enterprises as hosts. Angel’s Envy, a new spirits brand to which I contributed in its early days, took a strategic investment from the behemoth Bacardi almost right from the start. Bacardi was pining for an “in” to the exploding premium bourbon space, but wisely concluded it would be better to have an outsider do it for them. Once Angel’s Envy proved its mettle, Bacardi bought out the rest of the company, getting what it wanted with close to zero risk to its core operation and brands.

Big marketers have everything it takes to be potent machines for new brand creation: great people, resources, all of it. What’s more, creating new brands is easier today than ever before, thanks to new technologies enabling faster, better prototyping; new retail channels like e-commerce; a growing startup ecosystem ripe for partnerships; and new media channels that enable marketers to build awareness at a fraction of the cost in the old days.

Taking risks in the world of brands and innovation is required for progress. Bad taste and judgment notwithstanding, Unilever should be applauded for trying something so bold and new. It should have used a new brand as a guinea pig, however, and its peers should take heed.

Paul Earle is an adjunct lecturer of innovation and entrepreneurship at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and principal of Paul Earle & Co.

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