Dove 20 years of real beauty

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I was privileged to freelance at Ogilvy on Dove a number of years ago and got to understand the brand a little better during that time. My work on Dove was focused on product advertising for Dove soap in Brazil, the US, Vietnam and the Philippines rather than adding to the master brand canon around beauty standards.

When the 20th anniversary of the master brand campaign rolled around my LinkedIn was filled with posts about 20 years of the Real Beauty (or changing beauty as its currently articulated) positioning for the Dove brand. I took more of a slow read/write approach to my take on Dove.

Dove origin.

The origins of Dove lie in the injuries experienced by American servicemen during world war two. There was a need for a milder soap to address the needs of burn victims, and the concept of having moisturising cream (or cleansing cream as it was called in the earlier ads) was included in the soap to rehydrate skin rather than leaving it excessively dry after stripping off the skins natural oils.

Dove was introduced as a consumer product in 1957. The original advertising focused on the functional benefits of the product.

Decades later and the Dove advertising continued to focus on the products functional benefits.

For instance this 1990s advert positions Dove against everyday beauty brands and premium brand Neutrogena.

Dove still does functional benefit advertising, but it’s the master brand level advertisements that tend to get the most attention.


It is worthwhile considering the context that Dove was entering into with its reinvention. While we were post-9/11 the culture still has the optimism of the early 2000s. Celebrity gossip and paparazzi photos and videos were still a thing. Facebook had been launched for Harvard University students. Myspace had launched a year earlier with a focus on music and blogging was gaining a head of steam as a social channel. Real Media had launched a streaming music service but Spotify was a couple of years away from launch.

iTunes music downloads, CD ripping and iPods were reinventing music. Television shows were used to find the next popstars, while Dido and Eminem were dominating radio play.

DVD series box sets were a thing. Season three of TV show 24 was the must see TV with Jack Bauer trying to stop a biological terrorist attack and deal with his own heroin addiction.

I was using a Nokia smartphone and a Palm Tungsten T personal digital assistant at the time.

Beauty soap category at the time.

Beauty soap was not a new category. Unilever had arguably marketed the first beauty soap called Pears. By the time real beauty happened Pears was no longer distributed or marketed by Unilever in the UK. As well as Dove, Unilever owned Lux which was seen to be a ‘milder for your skin’ soap. By this time, Lux was a heritage brand that my Grandmother had liked and its main market focus was Latin America, Africa and South / South East Asia. Lux has pivoted to a girl power like position against societal sexism in its brand purpose led advertising.

Procter and Gamble had their own Lux analogue called Camay that traded on the glamour of famous actresses and socialites. At this time Camay was not seen as contemporary in the UK, but was selling well in Eastern Europe. By a strange twist of fate P&G sold Camay to Unilever in 2015, it was available in Latin America.

Simple soap was a British market competitor that had been part of Smith and Nephew’s spin-off of their consumer products division to focus on their medical businesses including advanced wound management. Simple’s positioning was that it contained no unnecessary ingredients and that it was ideal for sensitive skin.

Nivea had cleaning products like shower gels rather than soap per se but was in the personal care space.

At the time, Dove like Palmolive and Simple might be bought by a housewife and used by all the family. My Mum and Dad still use Dove or Simple soap bars, based on which they find first on their supermarket run.

Real beauty.

Dove’s global brand team wanted to reposition Dove more firmly in the beauty category. The story that is promoted revolves around how the brand team presented the Unilever board at the time with interview footage from their wives and daughters about their opinions on beauty.

There were a few iconic images that came out of the campaign.


The tickbox images that appeared in a lot of out of home executions at the time.

dove tickbox

The Dove evolution video which captured what lots of people knew in the media industry, but tapped into wider public discussions about the use of photo manipulation that were appearing around that time.

How real beauty memed.

Dove’s outdoor execution in the London Underground had wags using pens and markers to suggest the negative answers. I remember on the escalator in Holborn station seeing every advert with the box ticked. It even memed with online celebrity news site Holymoly launching the campaign for real gossip.

Campaign for Good Gossip - campaign for real beauty obituary

Dove Men+Care range.

Dove brand extension Dove Men+Care was launched in 2010 and now has a comprehensive range of everyday products. Unilever described this as a ‘white space’. But Nivea for Men had been in this space since 1986 and Nivea had sold shaving products to men as far back as the 1920s.

Dove Men+Care’s purpose wasn’t that clear when I worked on Dove as the master brand is so focused on empowering women and girls.

We believe that care makes a man stronger, and in order to best care for those that matter to you most, you need to start with care for yourself first.

Unilever website

This take from the Unilever website about what the Dove Man+Care brand stands for is still very generic and it could cover anything from Gillette or a Jordan Peterson sound bite to Andrew Tate’s various manosphere-oriented, fitness-focused enterprises.

The risk of a male counterpart.

It would be a major undertaking to build this into something a bit more pointed, yet fit for purpose. I could understand why it would be low on the priority list, particularly when Gillette’s effort was received so badly at the time.

We know from behavioural science that positive reinforcement works better than taking a negative stance. I have heard a couple of hypotheses put around at the time that:

  • Men may use Gillette razors; but women in households buy them.
  • Women represent the largest growth market for disposable razor systems due Gillette’s male market dominance, male consumers inertia to change brand once chosen and facial hair growth – meant that the Gillette brand team didn’t feel that they were taking a risk.

In both cases, men feature in the advert, but may not have been the ads target audience.

However I think that the media buying suggests these hypotheses were wrong. The ad was run during a prime TV spot on the Super Bowl. Critics point to Procter & Gamble taking a $8 billion non-cash writedown for the shaving giant.

P&G reported a net loss of about $5.24 billion, or $2.12 per share, for the quarter ended June 30, due to an $8 billion non-cash writedown of Gillette. For the same period last year, P&G’s net income was $1.89 billion, or 72 cents per share.

…The charge was also driven by more competition over the past three years and a shrinking market for blades and razors as consumers in developed markets shave less frequently. Net sales in the grooming business, which includes Gillette, have declined in 11 out of the last 12 quarters.

Reuters – P&G posts strong sales, takes $8 bln Gillette writedown (July 30, 2019)

From a societal perspective in general masculinity related topics is a cultural land mine; particularly when #allmenaretrash and similar hashtags are now commonplace, so it is harder to use in an effective manner the kind of nuance Gillette attempted.

Egard – a watch brand made this response video to Gillette.


Dove grew as a brand and became a form of social currency. It made the agencies involved (Ogilvy and Edelman) famous for years to come. What Edelman actually contributed to the creative concept is open for debate.

In terms of the Dove real beauty brand purpose, the results seem to be more mixed.

The current Dove master brand ad ‘The Code’ seems to be very similar to the original ‘Evolution’ ad, the only changes have been that Photoshop was being used by an expert and AI has now put it in the hand of teenage girls.

The distortion remains the same. The Girl Guides Girl’s Attitude Survey ran at the end of last year indicated that things have gotten worse over the past decade rather than better. And this was supported by another research driven article I read in The New York Times: What It’s Like to Be a 13-Year-Old Girl Today.

While the public discourse has changed behaviours haven’t and the wellbeing of girls and women seems to be in a similar or worse position today than it was 20 years ago.

Part of this is likely to be societal, we live in more anxious times and the status quo may have been even worse, had Dove not sparked the kind of public discourse it had.

Brand purpose?

At the time when Dove’s campaign came out, I can’t remember purpose really being a ‘thing’. The closest thing I could remember in the marketing zeitgeist is that people would occasionally talk about technology in terms of the pitch a young Steve Jobs made to PepsiCo executive John Sculley: do you want to sell sugared water all your life, or do you want to change the world?

There was talk about changing attitudes and creating a movement – but it was seen in terms of creativity, rather than a higher purpose.

At the time Unilever’s fragrance brand Lynx / AXE were running creative like this.

AXE / Lynx is still the world’s number one men’s fragrance brand, but its positioning has changed a bit.

When you smell good, good things happen. You’re a little more confident and life opens up a world of possibilities. We believe that attraction is for everyone and between anyone. It doesn’t matter your race, your sexuality, or your pronouns. If you’re into it and they’re into it, we’re into it. That’s The New AXE Effect.

Unilever website

Lynx and AXE content wasn’t that far out. Advertising in the late 1990s and early 2000s wasn’t so serene. You has several ad campaigns that were subversive or transgressive in nature.

A good deal of this was cultural zeitgeist. If you were a creative director in your mid-30s at the time, your terms of reference were very different. You would have likely enjoyed sub-cultures like the rave scene and independent music that drew from 1960s psychedelia and counterculture icons. You probably watched the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow film, one of their TV appearances or attended one of their live shows. Russell Brand was considered funny.

Brands getting attention and critical acclaim like Sony’s Playstation gaming console, Levi’s and Skittles were taking brand risks with campaigns that were far edgier than we’d be likely to see now. One direct mail shot from Sony Playstation designed to promote the Tekken 3 fighting game was sent out in a plain manilla envelope stamped ‘private and confidential’. Inside was a convincing medical card advising that the recipient receive immediate medical treatment for a potentially serious condition. Some of those mailed were waiting for hospital test results and complained to the authorities.

Meanwhile in the US, Mountain Dew was promoting pager plans as part of a co-marketing deal. But this was happening in the middle of a moral panic on pagers being a portal to drug dealer hook-ups and teen prostitutes receiving bookings from johns. Kids were being arrested and charged for possessing pagers in schools and colleges.

Failed online business had a distinctive shouty voice that we probably hadn’t seen since Poundland’s ‘teabagged’ social posts.

Two examples give a good temperature check of what was happening in agency teams at this time up to just before 2010.

The Volkswagen ‘terrorist’ film that was used as a door opener by creative team Lee Ford and Dan Brooks. It leaked online, much to the bemusement of Volkswagen. Creatives thought it would be well received by a brand marketing team with a sense of humour. While VW didn’t like it, it did get them work with a large production house in the US and London agency Quiet Storm.

The second one was Lean Green Fighting Machine’s Facebook campaign for Dr Pepper in 2010, that referenced an online Brazilian porn clip known as ‘2 girls, one cup’. The client had signed it off, without knowing the context. Controversy ensued on Mumsnet and the agency was fired from the account.

Amidst all this cynicism, boundary pushing and counterculture; Dove’s real beauty would have been distinctive and differentiated. Even if it did run a risk of being perceived as cynical self-serving corporate schmaltz.

Brand purpose as an idea seems to have gained popular currency after Dove’s campaign for real beauty.

You can see in this chart based on Google Books data how the English language mentions of ‘brand purpose’ took off.

brand purpose
Data from Google Books Ngram viewer

Brand purpose critic Nick Asbury places the rise of brand purpose to the 2008 financial crisis and related events such as the Occupy movement, which supports the post-2014 surge in interest. 20 years later, Dove is now seen as being emblematic of brand purpose. Dove took on brand purpose as a concept over time, with the increasing prominence of the Dove Self-Esteem Project being a case in point.

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