Real Beauty in the Age of the Extreme Makeover
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Real Beauty in the Age of the Extreme Makeover

Is the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty a clever one-off, a short-term attention-grabbing marketing campaign? Or is it a template for a new approach to marketing, an approach that blurs the traditional line between product promotion and corporate reputation management?

Paul Holmes

We live in an age obsessed with beauty.

We live in the age of Botox and Collagen and Rogaine, an age that offers a medical solution for every physical blemish, of pharmaceuticals that promise to make wrinkles disappear and lost hair sprout anew. We live in the age of the makeover, when television shows that help women dress better, or deploy make-up to its maximum advantage seem almost quaint when measured against shows that offer viewers the voyeuristic thrill of witnessing a woman’s features transformed by plastic surgery.

We live in the age of the super-model, an age in which a superficial ideal of beauty—unattainable for the vast majority of mere mortals—is promoted relentlessly in films and on television and promised by advertising for a vast array of fashion and beauty products that claim they will make women more beautiful but in many cases simply illuminate and exaggerate the gap between alluring fantasy and quotidian reality.

And so we live in an age of insecurity, an age in which beauty is celebrated but the majority of women feel decidedly un-beautiful, in which anorexia and bulimia are increasingly commonplace conditions, in which the words “inner beauty” have become the punch line of a tasteless joke, a euphemism for physical inadequacy.

With hindsight, it seems clear that a problem created in large part by marketers was ripe for a solution offered by marketers, for a company that was prepared to challenge the conventional wisdom of the beauty industry, to empathize with women’s insecurities rather than exploiting them, to campaign not for rare beauty for real beauty.

The Dove campaign for Real Beauty was not without its detractors—some within the fashion industry predicted that it would position Dove as “a brand for fat, ugly chicks” while some critics of the industry felt that a campaign for “real beauty” initiated by beauty products company was just another example corporate hypocrisy, a cynical attempt to sell more products.

But even those unconvinced by the campaign’s strategy or purity of motive were talking about it, joining a new global conversation about the true meaning of beauty, and helping Dove—and parent company Unilever—take ownership of an issue that engaged a huge number of women around the world.

Is the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty a clever one-off, a short-term attention-grabbing marketing campaign? Or is it a template for a new approach to marketing, an approach that blurs the traditional line between product promotion and corporate reputation management, an approach that blends sales and social responsibility, an approach that accepts—even welcomes—dissent in exchange positioning the brand as a true leader?

Early in 2004, the Hamburg office of international public relations consultancy Edelman was approached by Lever Fabergé to plan and executive a campaign to promote a new line of firming products that would carry the Dove brand.

Working alongside advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather and in-house marketing and public relations teams from Unilever, Edelman helped to create the strategy for what would become the most talked-about global marketing program of the early 21st century, a program that deliberately defied the hallowed marketing rules of the fashion and beauty industry, one that would combine paid and earned media attention to stimulate a discussion on beauty ideals.

“We didn’t start with an issue,” says Stacie Bright, senior communications and marketing manager at Unilever with responsibility for the Dove brand. “Unilever has always been very dedicated to really understanding its consumer and using research to come up with brand insights that can drive our marketing strategies.”

Nor was there a single “eureka” moment at which the strategy came about. “A campaign like this isn’t an overnight thing, or something you stumble upon,” she says. “It took a lot of people doing a lot of great work and thinking about the brand and what it stood for on a regular basis. We always knew what our views on beauty were and we spent a lot of time talking to women about beauty so we understood their concerns too.”

The marketing and communications team began with the brand’s mission—“to make more women and girls feel beautiful everyday”—and a core insight: that many women, perhaps even a majority, did not feel beautiful, every day or any day.

In some ways, then, the Campaign for Real Beauty was a natural evolution of Dove’s longtime brand strategy—a fact that gave the campaign an authenticity it would need to succeed.
“Dove has always been about real women for 50 years,” says Bright. “It has always embraced who real women are. The advertising has always featured testimonials from real women. The reason the Campaign for Real Women has been so successful is that it talked about something the brand has always stood for. Another brand could have taken the same subject matter and not been as successful because it would have lacked authenticity.

Kunze agrees. “Dove has always been a brand that talks with women, rather than at women,” she says. “The brand was always interested in entering a true and honest dialogue with women. Dove really wants to understand women’s needs, wishes and concerns. And it wants to speak to them in their language and in an honest and open way.”

Over time, the brand’s mission was expanded to become a “philosophy of beauty.” Says the company at its website: “Dove believes that for too long, beauty has been defined by narrow, stifling stereotypes. Women have told us it’s time to change all that. Dove agrees and believes a new definition of beauty is needed – one that is not defined by unrealistic media images. We believe real beauty comes in many shapes, sizes and ages. Dove’s mission is to make women feel beautiful every day by widening today’s stereotypical view of beauty and inspiring women to take great care of themselves.

The team’s belief that “real beauty” was an important issue was confirmed by a survey commissioned by Edelman Hamburg and carried out by forsa, a leading German research company, which sought to discover the attitudes of women across Germany on the subject of beauty. Forsa interviewed 600 women and men, with some startling results: 75 percent of those interviewed indicated that they were happy about the way they looked, even if their body was not absolutely perfect, but just 5 percent said they were able to identify with existing beauty ideals and an overwhelming 86 percent said they would like to see more “normal women” in beauty product advertising.

That last finding was the impetus for an advertising campaign that would set Dove dramatically apart from its rivals. The brand team set out to recruit “real women” for the advertising campaign that would launch the firming cream, along with a tagline proclaiming: “Firming the thighs of a supermodel would have been no challenge.”

Public relations would ensure that the advertising gained widespread attention beyond the readership of magazines in which the ads appeared. 

“What we really wanted to do with the research and the advertising was to start a discussion,” says Bright, “to challenge some of the stereotypes that were out there about beauty.” So the advertising was used to initiative a dialogue that continued on the brand’s website (, in the media, at town hall meetings.

Dove committed to three important rules in choosing the “real women” who would become its advertising models: the featured women were to represent the diversity of female beauty (diversity of age, size, shape, cultural or ethnic background, hairstyle, and looks); they should never have worked as models before; and their images would never be retouched in postproduction.

Edelman, meanwhile, made sure that every aspect of the search for those real women was exploited for maximum earned media value, from the casting of the ads to the photography by fashion and celebrity photographer Ian Rankin.

The firm gathered background information on the women selected for the ads, pre-produced a radio broadcast detailing the findings of the Dove survey, including comments by a psychologist, and pre-recorded beta material that was sent to all television channels, including “making of” footage from the photo shoot, and interviews with the women involved and Dove spokespersons. The company also made detailed findings from the survey available on its website, which also offered visitors the ability to send e-cards about the campaign and take part in online competitions.

Even the ad buy was designed for maximum earned media value, with outdoor ads placed in close proximity to publishing houses in an attempt to make sure the journalists and other opinion leaders saw the campaign first-hand. Other ad locations—like the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin—were chosen for the ability to generate maximum word-of-mouth.

The PR team also prepared for any controversy that might ensue, understanding that the campaign would have its critics.

“Breaking new ground entailed an element of uncertainty and the danger of Dove being marked down as a ‘brand for fat people’ by press and consumers,” says Anja Guckenberger of Edelman. “The PR program had to minimize that risk and provide credibility. The trick to unlocking the potential of PR was to place a question mark over existing beauty stereotypes in the public eye in such a way that everybody formed and voiced their own individual opinion on the subject and to communicate Dove’s long-term commitment to debunking beauty stereotypes.”

There was some criticism, but overall, the campaign was a spectacular success.

The six months of the launch campaign generated more the 550 million earned media impressions in print, television, radio and online venues. Within the first 10 days of the campaign, the company received 15 interview requests from national television channels, generating 50 million impressions. More than 100 published articles generated another 65 million impressions in women’s and lifestyle publications.

“The reactions of women—and men—to the campaign were phenomenal,” says Cornelia Kunze, who heads Edelman’s Hamburg office. “The ads really engendered a societal debate about beauty ideals and the real versus the unreal representation of beauty. It seemed that the brand had truly touched a nerve here with so many women feeling a sense of relief to finally see ‘normal women’ in advertising. They were able to identify with these ‘real women.’”

Traffic on the Dove website increased by a staggering 270 percent, and by the end of the campaign the brand had seen its market share in Germany increase by an impressive 17.5 percent, at a time when sales in the personal care market overall were in decline. Unilever and Dove had broken new ground in beauty marketing, and was reaping the benefits.

While the Edelman team in Germany was working with Dove’s advertising and other agencies to develop a global strategy, in the U.K. the Dove Real Women Campaign was already getting under way.

“Dove wanted to launch its firming line here ahead of the U.S.,” says Margot Raggett, operations director at London firm Lexis Public Relations.  “There was no global survey yet, but in order to launch the product we needed to talk about the whole brand philosophy.”

The first media coverage of the Campaign for Real Beauty was a March 27, 2004, article in The Times magazine by style editor Joanna Pitman, who had been at the original photo shoot at which six “real women” were photographed in their underwear for the Ogilvy & Mather advertising campaign.

Wrote Pitman: “To us hard line skeptics, blessed with far too many softly extruding body parts, this all sounds highly audacious. But then so is the campaign. No one is going to fail to notice these six, variously buxom women of different colors and sizes, all endowed with real-life lumpy shapes, prancing uninhibitedly about in their underwear and looking as natural—and happy—as if they had just been plucked at random from Brighton beach.”

The girls turned out to be great spokeswomen for the brand.

“We came in after the advertising strategy had been decided,” says Raggett. “The first thing we said was, you have to make these women the heroines of the campaign. We were very lucky in that they were all very bubbly girls and they were all very happy to talk about their experiences as models and very passionate about what Dove was doing.

“Still, “I don’t think anyone anticipated how famous they might become,” Raggett says.

Building on the buzz generated by the girls, Lexis employed a host of additional public relations tactics to place Dove at the center of a debate about real beauty.

“We fueled the discussion by going to opinion leaders and getting people talking about the campaign,” says Raggett, “even if people were saying negative things.” In truth, there were very few negative comments, although there were a couple of articles in The Guardian that were clearly skeptical of the campaign.

Columnist Marina Hyde, for example, was particularly determined not be hoodwinked by Dove’s apparent altruism. “It’s still snake oil… If there was a single piece of evidence proving that Dove was better than Imperial Leather or Tesco own brand, then trust me, six ‘ordinary’ models would be out of work and we’d be reading facts instead….

“The Dove posters feel rather patronizing: a sleight of hand where the illusion of honesty in one area allows the greater deception to sneak under the wire. Namely, that they are not trying to sell you something, that this something is in some meaningful way different to everything else, and that women need it and must spend ever more money on it. I can’t help feeling less lied to by an ad for a soap featuring a supermodel, who only a moron would think they’d resemble if they used said product, than by a gaggle of ‘ordinary’ women who are none the less terribly well lit and look suspiciously airbrushed in parts.”

In an ordinary marketing campaign, that kind of negative review might have created a problem, but the Dove brand team had launched the Campaign for Real Beauty with a clear understanding that it might have its detractors. “There were people who felt the girls should not have been in their underwear in the ads,” says Bright. “We wanted to broaden the debate. We knew there was a risk.

To build on the publicity surrounding the first set of women, Lexis launched a search for the next campaign models. This time, Dove was looking for a group of “firm” friends (pun very definitely intended) and partnered with The Sun to find finalists in each of eight regions from which the ultimate winners would be chosen. That generated another massive wave of publicity.

And in the absence of any global research, Lexis conducted its own surveys for publicity purposes, asking women to identify their beauty role models (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Beyonce) and to vote on whether they preferred the voluptuous Renee Zellwegger of Bridget Jones or the slimmed down version of the actress as Roxie Hart in Chicago (Bridget Jones won).

The firm even generated publicity for the all-female Dove brand team, who were prepared to strip down to their underwear for a photo shoot mimicking the ad campaign.

The next step was to take the campaign global.

Dove worked with Edelman research unit StrategyOne, with Dr. Nancy Etkoff of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University, and British polling firm MORI to commission an international study, The Real Truth About Beauty, that would “further the global understanding of women, beauty and well-being—and the relationship between them.”

“We worked with a lot of influencers, a lot of experts, when we were developing the program,” says Bright. “There were people early on who wanted to know why we were getting involved in this discussion. They wanted to know whether we would really do what we were saying we would do. We all understood that if we did this we had to do it for the right reasons, and we had to make a commitment. It couldn’t be a one-off thing.”

The study was “born out of a desire to talk to women around the world about female beauty,” says Sylvia Lagnado, global brand director for Dove. “Dove knows that the relationship women have with beauty is complex: it can be powerful and inspiring, but elusive and frustrating as well. Dove wanted to understand how women define beauty; how satisfied they are with their beauty; how they feel about female beauty’s portrayal in society; and how beauty affects their well-being….

“Dove wants women to feel that beauty is within their reach, and this study was instrumental in showing us how to achieve that goal. The results demonstrated a need to present a wider definition of beauty than is currently available to women—regardless of where they live. By doing this, Dove can not only help women feel beautiful every day, we can help them lead more satisfied lives.”

The survey began with a global literature review, examining existing research on the link between beauty, appearance, and self-worth, scanning materials in 22 languages from 118 countries. The came a massive survey that asked women in 10 markets around the world—from the U.S. to France to Brazil to Japan—about their attitudes on the subject of beauty.

The survey revealed, for example, that “beautiful” is not a word women willingly associate with themselves. When they were given a list of positive or neutral adjectives to describe themselves—natural, average, beautiful, sexy, gorgeous and more—they were more comfortable with words like natural (chosen by 31 percent of women) or average (29 percent) or even feminine (8 percent) or cute (7 percent) than they were with beautiful (2 percent).

When asked how satisfied they were with their own levels of beauty, 58 percent said they were only somewhat satisfied, compared to just 13 percent who said they were very satisfied with their beauty—proportions that remained remarkably consistent from country to country and across different age groups.
And about half of all women (48 percent) strongly agreed that when they felt less beautiful they also felt worse about themselves in general.

There was widespread agreement that “women who are beautiful have greater opportunities in life” (from 68 percent in Brazil to 50 percent in Italy to 44 percent in the U.S. to 37 percent in the U.K.); that “the media and advertising set an unrealistic standard of beauty that most women can’t ever achieve” (81 percent in the U.S., 71 percent in France; 50 percent in the U.K., 40 percent in the Netherlands); and that “beauty can be achieved through attitude, spirit, and other attributes that have nothing to do with physical appearance” (87 percent in the U.S., 76 percent in Italy, 72 percent in the Netherlands, and 57 percent in Japan).

Etcoff cites the 1913 Webster’s dictionary definition of beauty as “properties pleasing the eye, the intellect, the aesthetic faculty or the moral sense.”

By the first decade of the 21st century, however, “the default definition of beauty has shriveled pitifully. The contributions of the ear, the intellect, the broader aesthetic faculty or the moral sensibilities are gone. Beauty is visual; in fact, it is the same visual—the eye-popping features and stunning proportions of a few hand-picked beauty icons.”

Etcoff says she sees the Dove initiative as an attempt to “reclaim” beauty from a handful ultra-thin supermodels and ultra-glamorous movie stars.

“The Real Truth About Beauty study makes it clear that it is time to lift the quota system on images of beauty. The diversity of human beauty has been strained through a sieve of culture, status, power and money and what has emerged is a narrow sliver of the full panorama of human visual splendor. Beauty is diverse and the human eye thrills to new pleasures and fresh sources of visual splendor.”

The use of authoritative experts, with the credentials and credibility to talk about women’s issues, ensured that the media and other opinion leaders took the study seriously.

“Women want to see the idea of beauty expanded,” says Dr. Susie Orbach of the London School of Economics, who consulted on the study. “To be sure, women want to be physically attracted and they want to be perceived as such. Their looks are important to how they feel about themselves, how they regard beauty in themselves and in others….

“When it comes to strictly physical attributes, the images of manufactured femininity are rejected as being too narrow, as inauthentic and insufficient. The great majority of women want broader definitions of how women’s physical beauty is visually represented. Seventy five percent of women would like to see considerably more diversity in the images of beauty. They want to see women of different shapes, they want to see women of varying sizes, and they want to see a broader range of ages in the pictures of women than those who, at present, saturate our visual field.”

The first phase of the Campaign for Real Beauty launched in the United States in September of 2004 and featured no national television advertising, only billboard and print ads that included minimal copy and the briefest of references to the brand. The company therefore relied on its U.S. public relations partner, Edelman once again, to ensure that messages about Dove’s brand philosophy and strategy reached the widest possible audience.

The centerpiece of the U.S. launch was an ad campaign, created by Ogilvy & Mather, which asked viewers to judge the looks of several women “whose appearances are outside the stereotypical norms of beauty,” voting online or in the case of some billboard ads using their cell phones to see the results in  real time The audience for the “tick-box” campaign were invited to vote on whether the women depicted were “oversized” or “outstanding”; “wrinkled” or “wonderful.”



In the first quarter of 2005, the U.K. and other European markets followed the U.S., launching their own version of the tick-box campaign.

In the U.K., a British model who featured in the “wrinkled” or “wonderful” ad caught the imagination of the media and the public. “We have never been able to predict which angle will flare up and become the biggest story,” says Raggett. “We provide the media with as many angles as we can and let them decide.”

Lexis also conducted some additional research among eight to 14 year old girls, exploring their attitudes toward beauty and finding widespread agreement that girls needed to meet very specific criteria—blond, tall, slim, with flawless skin—in order to be considered beautiful. The firm partnered with Marie Claire magazine to create a four-page agenda-setting article. The launch of the advertising campaign was then timed to coincide with the publication of the article.

“PR took the lead in terms of the timing of the campaign,” says Raggett.

In Ireland, meanwhile, Wilson Hartnell Public Relations had been brought on board for the tick-box campaign, following the successful launch of the “Real Curves” advertising in the summer of 2004. The firm approached Image Magazine in November of 2004 and the editor commissioned two writers to debate the proposition that women who are more beautiful have more opportunities in life. The resulting feature spread across two pages of the magazine’s February 2005 edition, and helped to trigger the debate Dove was hoping for.

WHPR also approached The Sunday World, a publication best known for featuring images of conventionally beautiful women, and asked the editors to take the bold step of featuring one of the women from the Dove campaign on the cover of their magazine. Tabatha Roman, who appeared in the campaign’s “fat” or “fit” ad, was selected and interviewed for a feature article inside the magazine.

Dove also partnered with Bodywhys, an eating disorder charity. Simon Marshall, chairman of Lever Faberge Ireland, says Bodywhys was chosen “because the education and prevention work it is doing reflects our mission to widen the meaning of beauty by inspiring more women to feel beautiful everyday.”

Adds Jennie O’Reilly, chief executive of Bodywhys, “An increasing incidence of body dissatisfaction and eating disorders coincides with media presentations of unrealistic images of male and female body shapes… There is a pervasive belief among women that you need to fit this ‘ideal’ to be successful. We are hugely encouraged to see an advertising campaign that presents a more diverse opinion of beauty.”

Over the lifespan of the campaign, Unilever saw a remarkable 40 percent increase in sales of Dove products compared to the same period the previous year—particularly interesting given that the campaign focused on the Dove brand generally and did not mention specific products.

One reason for the incredible worldwide impact of the Campaign for Real Beauty is its ability to blend global themes with local execution.

The global study, for example, was an element of the campaign in most major markets around the world, but local media were provided with results that focused on the responses of women from their own countries,

The “tick box” campaign, meanwhile, was used everywhere, though with some minor variations. In the U.K., for example, one ad asked whether the featured model was “fat” or “fit” (fit in the U.K. being a synonym not for health but for attractiveness); in the U.S. the same ad was translated to give viewers a choice between “oversized” or “outstanding.” Of seven different visuals created for the tick box campaign, most countries chose to focus on four or five that were most appropriate for their market—and sometimes re-shot the ads to use local women..

Meanwhile, community and non-profit partnerships were created on a market-by-market basis. “Local markets had the liberty to pick an association that is relevant in their country with the only rule being that this organization has to be engaged in prevention work around the topics of self-esteem, body and beauty image distortion or eating disorders,” says Kunze.

While Edelman handled global campaign strategy and was the partner of choice in Germany and the United States, Lexis Public Relations handled the U.K. market, and Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide worked on the campaign in various Asian and Latin American countries, while its affiliate Wilson Hartnell PR was responsible for Ireland. In the Dutch market, the campaign is handled by an in-house team from Unilever itself.

But the campaign “works everywhere,” says Kunze. “It’s universal.”

Another key aspect of the campaign was the close cooperation of Unilever’s advertising and public relations partners, both of whom have had considerable input into the campaign’s strategy and development.

 “We have worked very closely with Ogilvy & Mather,” says Kunze. “The client likes to see joint proposals from advertising and public relations and so we have held joint brainstorming sessions where the objective is to come up with the best ideas for the brand. We develop joint proposals.”

“We are very dedicated to a 360-degree approach,” says Bright. “We go to great lengths to bring all our partners together to make sure the messages are consistent across all our communications. We don’t tell people, ‘you are in advertising so you are responsible only for the advertising.’ We want everyone to think about the best way to reach consumers in a way that resonates with them.”

The success of that strategy is evident from the fact that earned media coverage of the advertising has extended its reach to many more people than would have seen the ads in their paid form.

“It was in the brief from the beginning that the advertising was always meant to become a news story,” says Kunze. “We had to think about the public relations possibilities every step of the way. When we chose the models, we had to think about whether they would be able to do PR. We chose the location for some of the ads based on whether they would capture the attention of the media. It’s a public relations way of looking at advertising.”

Adds Bright, “When we looked for models we were also looking for role models. They had to have something within them that would enable them to represent the Dove brand. They had to have a story to tell.”

The advertising campaign that launched in the U.S. in June of 2005 featured six “real” women, none of them professional models: two students, a kindergarten teacher, a manicurist, an administrative assistance and a café barista, “facing the world in nothing but their underwear and a lot of sassy attitude,” as Dove’s press release put it.

“Dove hopes to change the way women perceive their bodies, and their beauty, by widening the definition of what it means to be beautiful,” the company added. “The brand is using images of real women with real bodies and real curves to accomplish this goal.”

Edelman’s assignment was to make sure that the ad campaign was just the starting point for a dialogue and debate about definitions of beauty. To accomplish that objective, it needed to turn the “real women” Dove had recruited for the firming campaign into celebrities, to position them as role models for all women.

The firm provided consumers with an opportunity to meet the selected models at a b-roll and photo shoot in Times Square, where people could also sign a banner pledging their support for the campaign. Dove promised a donation of $1 to uniquely ME—a charitable program of the Girl Scouts of America—for each signature.

The six models also appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and in their underwear on Oprah. By the end of the year, the PR team had secured coverage on 62 television shows, including The Today Show, The View, Good Morning America, Access Hollywood, and Dr. Phil, and feature coverage in high-profile print outlets including the cover of People magazine, the Associated Press, USA Today, New York Times Magazine and Allure.

Overall, the campaign far exceeded expectations, securing more than 1,000 placements in print, online, television and radio outlets, generating 630 million media impressions during the summer of 2005..

Dove also partnered with the American Women in Radio and Television to bring together thought leaders in the media and beauty arenas for a panel discussion and debate about the true nature of beauty. The brand became a sponsor of the group’s Gracie Awards ceremony in New York, presenting the first Dive Real Beauty Award to television personality Gayle King, a close advisor to Oprah Winfrey, who was chosen “for embodying the spirit of the Campaign for Real Beauty.”
Edelman then took the discussion to the grassroots level, sponsoring a series of local market panels and launched an essay and photo tour that targeted girls around the country.

On the community relations front, the company partnered with the Girl Scouts of the USA on a program called Uniquely Me, designed to help foster self-esteem among girls aged eight to 17. The company promised to donate $1 to Uniquely Me for every person who signed the Campaign for Real Beauty pledge on the company’s website.

“It was very important, after we started the discussion and after we promised to take a leadership role in the debate, that we walk the walk,” says Bright.

The Dove Self-Esteem Fund was created at the end of 2004 to support confidence-building programming for girls and young women globally.  In the U.S., the Fund supports uniquely ME!, a Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. program that includes a variety of interactive activities to help build self-confidence in girls 8 to17, including mentoring, community service, sports as well as group and individual activities.

“Our research has shown that too many girls develop low self-esteem from hang-ups about their looks and consequently, fail to reach their full potential later in life,” said Philippe Harousseau, U.S. marketing director for Dove. “We created the Dove Self-Esteem Fund as an agent of change to help educate girls, inspire a broader definition of beauty, and provide confidence-building tools and resources.”

With the aid of the Dove Self-Esteem Fund, BodyTalk is being developed in the United Kingdom. It’s a workshop designed to help young girls (and boys) understand and deal with feelings about their physical appearance, and learn how “ideal” images of beauty are created. The BodyTalk workshop materials include facilitation notes, surprising facts, activity cards and a DVD that investigates the trickery used to create ‘perfect’ images. The DVD has been filmed by one of the world’s top fashion photographers.

Despite the philanthropic aspects of the campaign, it continued to provoke criticism.

“This [ad campaign] is telling women they should feel good about themselves—but not so good that they don’t need cellulite cream,” says Jennifer Pozner, executive director of Women in Media & News, an advocacy group.

The Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times were particularly critical. Sun-Times columnist Lucio Guerrero opined that: “The only time I want to see a thigh that big is in a bucket with bread crumbs on it.” And colleague Richard Roeper told his readers: “If I want to see plump gals baring too much skin, I'll go to Taste of Chicago.”

The Dove marketing team remained unfazed: “We felt that it was okay to have a debate. If we weren’t making some people a little bit uncomfortable, we probably weren’t pushing the message hard enough,” says Bright. Who can’t resist adding an epilogue to the story: “The Tribune received hundred of letters from readers criticizing their coverage of the campaign. The criticism brought out our supporters.”

Meanwhile, the models themselves were experiencing an altogether more positive reaction from the women at whom the campaign was primarily directed.

“We’ve had some girls who’ve written in saying they are struggling with anorexia and they say they keep picture of us on the refrigerator as a reminder than these girls are normal and beautiful and they can be normal and beautiful,” Gina Crisanti, one of the models featured in the U.S. ad campaign, told the Associated Press.

Just as important, Dove brand sales at the height of the PR campaign, from June to August, were up 24 percent over the same time period in 2004, and new firming lotion and cream ranked number one and number two in the Dove line of products. More than a million visitors logged onto the website and shared their thoughts about how the campaign had changed their outlook.

In Australia, the Campaign for Real Beauty had kicked off in the summer of 2004 with a national search to find a real, natural beauty to celebrate the launch of the new Dove Face Care Range.

The Australian operations of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide coordinated a PR program that began with an event—Reveal Your Natural Beauty— for beauty editors. To keep the campaign “real,” the event was held not at the latest swanky restaurant but at Quay, a classic venue with sleek, simple styling and the natural beauty of Sydney Harbour as a backdrop.

Over the next four months, the Dove team conducted its “Face in the Crowd” search for the ideal “real” model, obtaining media coverage for the announcement of the judging panel, the call for entries, the identification of photographers in local markets, selection of the finalists and finally the announcement of the winner. More than 5,000 women entered the competition, which generated 61 separate stories including TV, radio, magazine and newspaper hits.

Meanwhile, after the success of the tick-box campaign in Europe and the U.S., Unilever turned its attention to the Asia-Pacific region, where Ogilvy was engaged to coordinate PR efforts on a pan-regional basis.

“It was a fascinating challenge,” says a spokesperson for Ogilvy in Asia. “The concept of female beauty in Asia includes different interpretations and definitions not just against the Western world, but also within the varying culturally diverse markets themselves.” Ogilvy’s task was to bring those varying interpretations to life and to create debate around the Campaign in a manner that was relevant to each of the individual markets, including Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia and Japan.

There were the three pillars to the PR strategy: first to provoke debate and discussion; second, to involve influencers and consumers in that discussion; and third to sustain the discussion using both product launches and brand initiatives.

Ogilvy PR, with sister agency Ogilvy & Mather and Research International, undertook a major piece of research, The Real Truth About Asian Beauty, an in-depth study of 2,100 women across 10 Asian countries, once again exploring attitudes towards their own physical beauty, and definitions of beauty within society. The research found that only 3 percent of Asian women described their looks as beautiful, while levels of satisfaction with women’s own personal beauty ranged from the high of 87 percent in the Philippines, to a low of 34 percent in Korea.

“The research essentially revealed low-levels of self-esteem generally across Asia,” says the Ogilvy spokesperson, “while at the same time highlighting the vast and diverse sets of opinions, reflected in the culturally diverse societies that exist from the North to the South.”

Ogilvy pitched the results to major media in each market, generating impressive coverage. The front page of the Bangkok Post asked: “Thai Women Not Beautiful?” Asahi News, the Japanese national newspaper with a circulation of over 4 million, carried images of the interactive billboards; and CNBC across Asia ran a four-minute piece explaining the philosophy of the campaign.

The PR team also created a forum in each market for the campaign launch, bringing together academics, influencers and media to debate the research findings and discuss their implications. Panels were assembled at events in Tokyo, Taipei, Manila, Bangkok and Jakarta. In Singapore a panel debate resuled in in-depth magazine features in crucial women’s lifestyle publications such as Bro and Ad Lib. In Japan, psychologist and speaker Akiro Ito announced plans to write and publish a book on the findings.

The next stage of the campaign saw the publication of a White Paper designed to provide greater insight into the research findings.

In the first quarter of 2006, Dove launched the next phase of the Campaign for Real Beauty in the United States, focusing on an effort to increase self-esteem among girls. The effort launched with a specially-produced ad that premiered during the television broadcast of Super Bowl XL on Sunday, February 5. The 45-second spot, created by Ogilvy & Mather featured a series of young girls talking frankly about their insecurities. One dark-haired girl “wishes she were blonde,” according to voice-over. Another “thinks she’s ugly.” A red-haired girl “hates her freckles.”

“A girl’s sense of self is fragile and impressionable,” says Harvard’s Etcoff. “She needs positive role models and encouraging messages to strengthen her self-respect and sense of self worth. Our society presents girls with relentless images of ‘ideal’ female faces and bodies and little else. This does nothing to foster self-esteem. We need to show girls the diversity of true beauty and help them to discover their own unique beauty and take pride and pleasure in it.”

 Dove selected the Super Bowl, not exactly a traditional venue for a beauty brand, because of its unparalleled reach—an audience of around 90 million men and women—and its powerful ability to bring widespread attention to the issue.

The company followed up with live chats with self-esteem experts—including gymnast Dominique Dawes—on the campaign website,

“I work with young girls every day, and believing in themselves can often be as much of a challenge for them as learning to walk the balance beam,” says Dawes, who won an Olympic gold medal in 1996. “There’s a real need for all girls to hear and understand that they carry the power inside to grow up to be strong, beautiful women. I’m proud to join with the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty to help girls feel like champions in every part of their lives.”

And once again, Dove had commissioned research that both informed and supported its campaign objectives. Its second global report on female attitudes toward beauty: Beyond Stereotypes: Rebuilding the Foundation of Beauty Beliefs explored the genesis and development of self-esteem and examined how beauty ideals impact women’s and girls’ lives globally. More than 70 percent of girls between the ages of 15 and 17 reported that when they felt bad about their looks they were more likely to avoid a range of daily activities including attending school, going to the doctor, or even offering their opinions.

The survey polled 3,300 girls and women between the ages of 15 and 64 in 10 countries around the world: Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and the United States. More than 90 percent of girls said they wanted to change at least one aspect of their physical appearance, with body weight ranking the highest; nearly a quarter indicated they would consider undergoing plastic surgery; and 13 percent acknowledged having an eating disorder.

Harvard’s Nancy Etcoff and LSE’s Susie Orbach again worked with Dove to develop the survey and commented on its results. Said Orbach: “These results are truly alarming. They demonstrate the clear correlation between physical satisfaction and self-esteem. They also capture the negative effects society’s narrowly defined beauty ideals are having on women and girls, who must be encouraged to overcome these damaging beauty stereotypes to embrace more authentic and positive ways of feeling beautiful.”

The study also revealed that mothers have the earliest, most powerful—and most positive—influence on a girl’s feelings about beauty and body image. While maternal influence was related to higher physical satisfaction and self-esteem levels, the influence of girlfriends was related to lower satisfaction and self-esteem. 

“These findings clearly demonstrate the power of the mother-daughter dialogue to positively influence a girl’s self-esteem, body image and satisfaction,” says Etcoff. “We know from the study that women are longing for affirmation of their unique, individual beauty, both for themselves and for younger generations. The mother-daughter bond has great potential for empowering girls and making a real difference for future generations.”

As a result of the findings, Dove has created a comprehensive resource to help facilitate conversations between mothers and daughters available at its website, offering “True You,” a free downloadable workbook; tips for encouraging self-esteem; a “self-check” quiz; expert advice; and discussion boards.

But the change in the campaign’s tone—the self-esteem research is much more serious—has created new challenges, as has the fact that in some markets public relations has been driving the campaign forward without any advertising support.

Says Raggett, “It’s a much more complex and serious message this year. We didn’t want to be worthy or depressing.”

So in the U.K., Lexis has been working with celebrities such as singers Charlotte Church and Joss Stone and Doctor Who star Billie Piper—all of whom have real curves and are happy to talk about the importance of girls being happy with who they are. The British campaign is the only one to feature celebrities—rather than “real” women—so prominently, a reflection of the fact that “British women are the most influenced by celebrity culture,” according to Raggett, a trait they share with the British media.

At the same time, “it’s a way of focusing on positive messages rather than on the problem all the time,” she adds..

“Our belief is that beauty if very positive,” adds Bright. “Real beauty is very positive. The Dove brand is not about negativity. It’s about finding the beautiful things inside each woman. You can’t do that if you take a negative tone.”

There’s not much doubt, based on Dove sales reports from various markets around the world, that the Campaign for Real Beauty  has been a success. And the fact that more than 1.5 million women around the world have visited and shared words of encouragement suggests that Dove’s efforts have touched the target audience, forging an emotional bond that a more conventional ad campaign could never have achieved.

In the U.K., marketing research firm VAR International measured the impact of the Dove campaign against that of rival Lux, which used a more conventional advertising approach featuring Sex & the City star Sarah Jessica Parker. It looked at both brands using metrics including spontaneous brand awareness and brand acceptance—the degree to which consumers found the messages credible and appealing. Dove outscored Lux on awareness (69.2 percent to 30.8 percent, although Lux showed a slightly higher increase over the duration of the study) and on acceptance (7.56 to 4.73), with acceptance rising significantly.

“Marketers have been learning that peer-to-peer marketing, via the Internet through reviews, blogs and community sites, and that it is necessary to strike up a two-way dialogue with consumers,” wrote Nathalie Kilby in Marketing Week. “The results of this survey show that peer-to-peer marketing does not have to be restricted to the web. Using real people as brand ambassadors is a hugely successful strategy for Unilever and its Dove brand.”

Yet the campaign still has its vocal detractors.

Seth Stevenson of Slate is not a fan. Responding to Super Bowl ads featuring little girls with body-image problems he wrote: “This is the most cynical ad campaign of the last several years. Women, do not be duped! Dove is not selflessly interested in your—or your daughters’—well-being. It is a multinational beauty-products company, which hopes to sell expensive cellulite cream to these same little girls just a few years down the road.

“And using Dove products is not some sort of righteous political statement. Buying retail goods—from a division of Unilever—is not in fact the pathway to gender equity.”

Nor is Stevenson convinced that the campaign is a winner for the brand. In the short-term, he says, “these ads are real attention getters—everyone’s talking about them. On that level, they’re a smashing success. Also, Dove now owns the ‘friend of the everywoman’ angle. Smart move on their part to spot this open niche and grab it.”

But in the long-term, he says: “Sadly, this is not a winning play for the long haul. If Dove keeps running ads like this, women will get bored with the feel-good, politically correct message. Eventually (though perhaps only subconsciously), they’ll come to think of Dove as the brand for fat girls. Talk about ‘real beauty’ all you want—once you’re the brand for fat girls, you’re toast.”

Others offer a more balanced perspective, one that acknowledges Dove’s remarkable achievement.

“The debate over whether these images of women are positive (because they are more ‘real’ than many marketing or media depictions of women) or negative (because they are all well within typical beauty norms, practically naked and pushing a product) has offered few surprises,” says marketing a branding expert Rob Walker, writing for the New York Times magazine.

“But lurking behind it is the more intriguing fact that this is a marketing campaign—not a political figure or a major news organization or even a film—that ‘opened a dialogue’ (as one of the young women said to People).” Citing the results of the Dove survey, he says: “It seems likely that if these same, not-so-original conclusions were reached by a university or a think tank, the impact would have been minimal. But a giant corporation with a huge advertising budget is not so easily ignored.”

Dove and its public relations team continue to accept—even welcome—the criticism, convinced that it enhances the dialogue and reinforces the brand’s leadership position.

“There is criticism,” says Kunze. “We don’t mind. We want that dialogue, and we understand that if there’s a genuine dialogue there’s going to be disagreement. We want credible voices to weigh in, even if they disagree, because that keeps the dialogue going.”

Of course, dialogue is not an end in itself. And Dove believes the Campaign for Real Beauty will have a more lasting effect. By 2008, Bright says, Unilever expects to have had a meaningful, positive impact on the lives of a million girls all around the world. That’s an ambitious but not unreasonable goal.
The Campaign for Real Beauty represents a new marketing ethos for the 21st century.

First, it demonstrates the ability of advertising, public relations and digital communications to work together, on an equal footing, to create a branding platform that touches people in many more ways than a simple ad campaign could. It provides proof that the best brand ideas are not restricted to a single communications channel, that working together paid and earned media can increase the impact of a campaign exponentially.

Second, it demonstrates that brands can differentiate themselves by taking ownership of an issue that really resonates with their target audience. Very little of Dove’s advertising has focused on the inherent properties of the product. Instead, the company has demonstrated a willingness to take a leadership position in addressing a real world problem.

Third, it demonstrates the value of engaging in dialogue with stakeholders. All too often, advertising is designed to communicate one way, to tell the audience whatever the brand and its ad agency want it to hear. But the reality is that brands today are not defined by what companies say about themselves, but by what customers and other say about them. Those conversations are taking place all the time; the smart companies are figuring out how to involve themselves in those conversations, how to fuel them, how to lead them. That’s what the Campaign for Real Beauty has done for Dove.

And finally, it demonstrates the importance of authenticity. The Campaign for Real Beauty is true to the heritage of the Dove brand and its longstanding commitment to the idea of making women feel beautiful. But the authenticity of the Campaign for Real Beauty stems not only from its links to the Dove brand mission, but also from the company’s sustained, multidimensional commitment to the cause, its willingness not only to talk about beauty and self-esteem but to take action and to make a difference, through community outreach, education, and targeted philanthropy.

If other brands learn the right lessons from the Campaign for Real Beauty, the future of marketing—and the future role of public relations as part of the marketing mix—will be far brighter than it looks today.

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