In 2005, Dove's 'real beauty' advertising campaign eschewed traditional ideas of female beauty in favour of featuring 'real women' of a variety of shapes and sizes. The campaign still has resonance, some 12 years after its inception.
Jun Bum Kwon, a lecturer in the school of marketing at UNSW Business School, has used modern text mining techniques to analyse the impact of the Unilever brand campaign. He was attracted to the research for two reasons.
"First, five years ago, we mainly analysed numbers, but now we can analyse text as well," he says. "I wanted to utilise big data tools to ask business questions."
Given that ads deliver a message that can influence people, text mining becomes a powerful tool to look at the impact of that message.
"Second, most people think of marketing and advertising just as a commercial thing, to make more money, but ads are also a great way to address social issues."
Kwon's research found the Dove campaign had a significant impact on the amount of discussion about 'real beauty' in newspapers, around the time of the campaign. This effect was noticeable even in newspapers that didn't feature Unilever ads, though the impact was greater in newspapers that did.
"Before the campaign, unrealistic stereotypes of what women should look like – tall and slim – were very prevalent in advertising," says Kwon.
'Dove explicitly said, we want to broaden people’s idea of beauty, and identified the media, and especially TV, as the biggest obstacles'
– JUN BUM KWON
Dove, however, wanted to change people's thinking away from traditional views of beauty, and away from a world where young women who wanted to look like the stereotypes could get caught up with problems such as excessive dieting and eating disorders.
"Dove explicitly said, we want to broaden people's idea of beauty, and identified the media, and especially TV, as the biggest obstacles," Kwon says.
Hearts and minds
In devising the campaign, Dove undertook extensive research into how people perceived beauty.
"They identified a social problem, and they wanted to change it," says Kwon. "The campaign was a huge success. Everyone talked about it, and of course Unilever made a lot of money."
After Dove's success, many brands adopted a similar strategy – sports brand Nike changed the way it portrayed women in ads, towards featuring athletic women with big thighs.
"Of course, mass media are also companies who want to make money, but they also have a public goal – they want to deliver something important to the public," says Kwon. "They feel the need to discuss social issues."
According to Judy Sahay, director of creative social media agency Crowd Media, "the media landscape has changed dramatically since 2005".
"Traditionally, media companies like Fairfax had a big impact on people's decision-making. But since social media, consumers don't have to go to traditional media to get information," she says.
Sahay believes companies such as Dove now ask, "as a brand, why do we exist, what do we stand for, and how do we effectively convey that message to our target audience?
"The content needs to speak to the hearts and minds of consumers, to be authentic and evoke emotion. If it's relatable, people trust it."
Going back to 2005, Sahay believes the issue of 'real beauty' was trending in the media anyway.
"Because of the positive sentiment that resulted from the campaign, news organisations attached themselves to it. News companies realised that people liked the content, and were able to piggy-back on that."
Sahay claims this piggy-back effect went even further, with an increase in sales for products and services covering beauty, fashion, day spas and wellness retreats.
Moreover, she believes that Dove's 'real beauty' campaign was also successful because it didn't work on just brand awareness, but rather on brand equity.
"They wanted to create a brand that allowed people from all different backgrounds to participate through various mediums. They had an omni-channel approach," Sahay says.
"Any brand that stands for something other than the brand will always succeed. Consumers want to know, 'how will this brand impact on my life', and campaigns that manage to do this will do really well."
'The quality of articles and journalism in newspapers has diminished over this time, which goes to the issues of trust and fake news'
– MICHAEL LOCKE
Sahay cites the success of the 'You can still dunk an Oreo in the dark' campaign, after the lights went out in the stadium hosting the Superbowl in 2013. "It was timely and relevant," she says.
One approach that doesn't seem to work is where brands attempt to undermine other brands – though long-term rivals such as Coke and Pepsi appear to be able to get away with this, if it's done with gentle humour.
Ultimately, for Sahay, it's all about leverage. "Had Dove just talked about their product, it wouldn't have hit the emotion. Now, when we see a model that looks like me, we trust it.
"There was a community-centred feel to the 2005 campaign. Social media now makes this much easier, as we can have real time conversations about things."
"It's always about the brand, not the creative ideas supporting it," says Michael Locke, managing partner at strategic brand and marketing consultants LOCKE.
For LOCKE, there are generally two ways of approaching a global marketing campaign. The first is to "create a topical category".
"Apple is a good example of this, with its focus on intuitive useability. Anything that doesn't have this now just falls over," Locke says.
The second is to amplify and own what he calls a "social murmur", and this is what the Dove campaign did.
"To build a good strategy, you need good insight," says Locke. "Unilever would have had a lot of insight and research into this, and they would have detected the social murmur."
Locke notes that a lot of the impact of the Dove campaign would have been PR driven, through press releases and speaking to journalists, "what we call seasoning the environment".
Since 2005, globally, TV advertising is still viewed as the most effective form, and remains the biggest spend (though TV ads are now shared first on social media).
But when it comes to newspapers, the idea of, 'we advertise with you, so we expect some coverage' was and is still relevant. Ironically, because there's now less advertising in newspapers, advertisers have more leverage over editorial.
"The quality of articles and journalism in newspapers has diminished over this time, which goes to the issues of trust and fake news," says Locke.
"In 2005, when every journalist was respected in their own right, 'real beauty' was a good social position. Now, though, the number of serious newspaper journalists has diminished."
When it comes to online writing and the blogosphere, the notion of 'pay me and I'll write about you' is prevalent, resulting in a further diminishing of trust.
On the longevity of the Dove campaign, Locke notes that, "Unilever would have been delighted by the results. When you have a creative concept, you'll typically run it for a couple of years, and anything that runs longer, you iterate and refresh.
"If a brand has a clear purpose, then people know what they're buying and buying into, and in the case of Dove, they're buying into a belief. If you hit the right spark, you create a bushfire."