How can social comparison theory be used to interpret the success of Dove’s early Real Beauty...

  1. How can social comparison theory be used to interpret the success of Dove’s early Real Beauty campaign?

Dove’s Advertising Campaign Highs and Lows:

From Real Beauty to Real Success to Real Controversy

In 2017, Jennifer Bremner, brand director of skin cleansing at Unilever, had highly valued the Dove brand’s success. Over the previous decade, Dove (best known for its skin cleanser products such as body wash and moisturizer bars) had received multiple prestigious awards for its branding and positioning accomplishments. The consumer outcries that the brand’s latest promotion had just ignited, however, suddenly threated to unravel that success. Bremner and her marketing team was now facing a crisis that held their tremendous brand successes hanging in the balance.

Consumers were expressing outrage against Dove with online accusations that the brand promoted racial hatred and bigotry. As consumers posted videos of themselves throwing Dove products into garbage cans, the brand was confronting calls for boycotts with escalating hostility. Hashtags such as #DoneWithDove, #DoveIsRacist, and #BoycottDove were gaining momentum rapidly (Lubitz, 2017; Shirbon, 2017, Wootson, 2017). Dove’s crisis began when it aired its three second 2017 Facebook promotion for Dove body wash. Public reactions to the promotion threatened to undo the impressive sales revenues and brand equity that Dove had worked so hard to create.

The Dove Brand

Lever Brothers (subsequently Unilever) introduced Dove to the US consumer market as a “beauty bar” skin cleanser (soap) in 1957. The brand centered its positioning on enhancing beauty through a product formula that included “one-quarter cleansing cream.” As such, Dove presented its brand as a skin moisturizing alternative that would not dry a consumer’s skin like “ordinary” soap (Saddleton, 2007).

By the early 1990s, the Dove brand was selling approximately $200 million of this skin moisturizing alternative to soap (Aaker, 2013). After decades of success, the brand launched its moisturizing body wash in 1995. Subsequent brand extensions then led Dove to offer a full array of beauty offerings including deodorants, lotions, cleansers, and shampoo (Saddleton, 2007).

The Dove Real Beauty Campaign

In 2004, with sales at approximately $2.5 billion, Dove saw an opportunity to tap into women’s self-perceptions of beauty to address female insecurities while building a connection between women and the Dove brand (Bahadur, 2017; Neff, 2014). Dove had commissioned a research study on women’s priorities and interests that included 3,000 women from ten countries including the US, Canada, the UK, Italy, France, Netherland, Portugal, Brazin, Argentina, and Japan. The results concluded that as few as 2% of women actually considered themselves beautiful (Etcoff, Orbach, Scott, and D’Agostino, 2004; Jeffers, 2005).

Dove chose to counter the societal pressures that apparently played a role in this finding. Society had bombarded women with idealized images of themselves as reflected by advertisements of thin models and celebrity women (Cusumano & Thompson, 1997; Spitzer, Henderson, & Zivian, 1999). In society’s achievement culture, furthermore, from a young age girls had been stretched thin in juggling schoolwork and extracurriculars as well as family and social lives, and they had felt the need to be perfect in doing so (Homayoun, 2012). These pressures had further exacerbated problems associated with the idealized notion of girls and women and having thin bodies (Thompson, Coovert, & Stormer, 1999). As Bremner explained, “We’re hoping to inspire girls to realize they don’t need to change themselves and help build a more positive relationship with their own beauty” (Neff, 2015c).

This female socialization process extended from childhood into womanhood. As Olivia Johnson, strategic planner on Dove at Ogilvy & Mather (advertising and marketing firm) in London further explained, “We knew the way beauty brands behaved and the way they portrayed women wasn’t quite right…It makes you feel deflated when you see the gap between these images of perfection and your own physical reality” (Jeffers, 2005).

Dove chose to challenge these societal pressures through its positioning and branding strategies. Dove began its “Real Beauty” campaign by depicting ordinary women (i.e., no professional models) from diverse ages and ethnicities who had various “real” (i.e., ordinary) body types (Bahadur, 2017). This approach aimed to shatter the myopic view of feminine beauty as being limited to a thin model with perfectly applied makeup. Instead, it encouraged women to change the way they viewed themselves – while simultaneously recognizing their own beauty (Aaker, 2013). Citing statistics that were updated from the original study, Dove would later explain on its website:

Only 4% of women globally around the world would describe themselves as beautiful. Just four percent. Since we’re committed to getting every single woman body confident and feeling beautiful, we wanted to show women everywhere that what we see in magazines and on TV isn’t real life. It’s as far from real as you can get. (n.d.)

Early Real Beauty Campaign Successes

As far back as 1954, Leon Festinger (1954), hypothesized that individuals tend to evaluate their opinions, attributes, and abilities by comparison to other people. The comparisons were crucial to self-evaluations and were based on how one judges herself in relation to others on a particular attribute (Wood, 1989). Individuals chose their comparisons based on others who were viewed as similar for the attribute under consideration (Miller, Turnbull, & McFarland, 1988). Festinger (1954) further hypothesized that as differences increased, the likelihood of comparisons decreased.

Unilever, therefore, wanted to change the female beauty paradigm from the highly stylized model to the typical woman in an effort to increase comparisons from “ordinary women” who did not look like glamorized models. “Dove knows that women are constantly scrutinized about how they look,” Bremner said. “They are under pressure to ‘look the part’ and this stops them from achieving their full potential” (Monloss, 2016). By changing the point of comparison, Dove hoped women would reconsider how they then viewed themselves.

Throughout the Real Beauty campaign, Dove devised a series of creative ways to use models whose body types and attractiveness was more like the “typical” woman. As shown in Appendix A, early in the campaign, a 2005 promotion included groups of “real” women with diverse ages, ethnicities, and body types in their underwear proclaiming Dove to be “tested on real curves” (Macleod, 2005).

The early days of the Real Beauty campaign also included an interactive component (Jeffers, 2005). Appendix B shows four examples of promotions that were part of a campaign referred to as the “tick-box” campaign. The tick-box promotion asked viewers to respond to a question about a depicted woman’s appearance with two response options such as “Grey?” vs “Gorgeous?” or “Ugly spots?” vs “Beauty spots?” or “Big? vs. “Beautiful?” (J., 2012). Each response option was assigned a box that could (symbolically) be checked (or “ticked”) by a respondent. Although the tick-boxes were symbolic, a number was also provided that allowed respondents to text their personal vote.

As votes poured in by the millions, Dove knew it was generating positive reactions from consumers – while potentially increasing brand awareness and consumer interactions with the Dove brand (Bahadur, 2017; Jeffers, 2005). For Dove’s brand equity, the results appeared very positive.

Furthering these results, Michelle Edelman, director of planning at Ogilvy in Chicago, cited research that confirmed the Real Beauty campaign was increasing the extent to which women were associating the brand with “contemporary” and with “beauty” (Jeffers, 2005). Marti Barletta, former ad executive, author Marketing to Women: How to Understand, Reach and Increase Your Share of the Largest Market Segment and president of The TrendSight Group (a marketing firm dedicated to helping companies reach female customers), credited Dove’s new positioning approach as “a radical departure for packaged-goods advertising” (Jeffers, 2006). Thanks to these new promotions, she said, “the Dove brand has really been elevated in the esteem of a lot of women” (Jeffers, 2005).

Research also indicated that brand loyalty was increasing among Dove consumers (Celebre and Denton, 2014; Neff, 2006). In 2003, (immediately prior to the start of the Real Beauty campaign), approximately one-third of Dove’s sales had been generated by consumers who also purchased additional Dove brand products. By 2006, that number had doubled to two-thirds of Dove’s sales (Celebre and Denton, 2014; Neff, 2006).

Pleased with the campaign’s successes, Dove released a two-minute promotional video, Evolution, in 2006 displaying how much effort was required to transform a “real” woman’s facial appearance into that of a seemingly flawless model (, n.d.). Appendix C provides a side-by-side comparison of an Evolution model’s face before professional enhancement and after enhancement for marketing purposes. In contrasting real (natural) beauty with the media-created (professionally made-up) beauty, Evolution won the top digital viral award, the Cyber Lion Grand Prix, as well as the top film category award at the Cannes Lions International Festival (Sweeney, 2007).

According to the Huffington Post, the Evolution campaign hit a significant emotional cord with consumers:

“Evolution” was the tipping point, turning the Campaign For Real Beauty into a household name. For many young women, “Evolution” struck a chord, opening their eyes to the narrow definitions of beauty they grew up with and the way images were manipulated to fit said ideals.

(Bahadur, 2017)

By 2017, the Evolution video had reached almost 17 million views (Bahadur, 2017).

The Real Beauty campaign was not limited to promotions. In 2010, Dove originated its Dove Self-Esteem Weekend. The annual event was intended “to inspire moms and mentors to talk to girls in their lives about beauty, confidence and self-esteem supported by discussion aids” (Aaker, 2013) as well as to promote self-confidence and self-esteem in young girls (Wolff, 2012).

Homework Answers

Answer #1

The social comparison theory states that people tend to compare themself with the target image of what they would like to aspire to achieve. The target image which people aspire to achieve acts as a realistic goal and they are self-motivated to achieve those goals. The study of social comparison has shown that our self-appraisal of beauty can be affected by the characteristics present in the target image. If the people find there is a similarity in attitude which target image has then they feel motivated and happy and tries to achieve that target image, this further complements the virtue of the perceived image of self. As a natural process, the images or personality which are perceived similar are assimilated easily. Similarly, the dove campaign of real women brings out that similarity and the target customers (women) find that similarity and show the readiness to assimilate the characteristics of the target. The image of real women presented through the campaign concept has got similar traits of real women which helped the target customers to go through the assimilative process of the traits. This campaign really became successful due to through identification of the perceived target image which the target segment of customer would aspire to. Overall the campaign proved to be a success because the campaign was able to deliver the positive self-appraisal of the target women and brought the change in buying behavior where the whole purpose of purchase changed from the utilitarian purchase to the expression of feeling, emotion, and value of a woman.

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