Will the real Unilever please stand up? Is it sexist Lynx or female-friendly Dove?

In this guest post, Miles Mainwaring argues that brands like Unilever need to be consistent across their entire portfolio or risk social media censure.

Author Martin Amis makes a satirical (and what turned out to be very prescient) stab at the cynicism of  tabloid culture in his 1992 novel, Yellow Dog. The editorial team at his fictional rag, “The Morning Lark” uniformly refer to their readers as “the wankers” while sincerely asking, “Is it in the best interests of our wankers?” and stating, “The wanker comes first.” They know their customers, but certainly don’t think much of them.   

And of recent times, I’ve begun to wonder what Unilever really thinks about their customers.

The current hoopla and outrage surrounding the latest Lynx “Dirty Balls” campaign is nothing new to most of us. It is just the latest chapter in what has become an increasingly yawnful, yet successful global brand strategy for Lynx:

  1. The promise of sex appeal—packaged in contrived, un-PC humour and titillation—designed to cause outrage.
  2. Apologise (with mock contrition, snigger).
  3. Do it again and again, because it is a terrifically simple strategy for selling to young men.

Personally, I think their tiresome formula is turning the brand into the Jerry Springer of male hygiene products. But I’m not here to assess the merits of the Lynx campaign. It moves deodorant.

What I’m perplexed about is how Unilever—owners of the Dove brand, ultimate creators of the iconic “Real Beauty” campaign and winners of two Cannes Grand Prix—can support such contradictory brand messages and values in their portfolio.

We now live in an age where consumers are savvier about how the corporate world works. Gone are the days when the big conglomerate hid in the background, largely shielded by their consumer brands.

It’s not like Unilever try to be invisible. Far from it. Unilever are a publicly traded company with consumer websites and hold number 96 on the Forbes Global 2000 List. Valued at around $79 billion, they are a brand consumers know about.

So, does Unilever believe the famous Dove “Real Beauty” campaign cry, “Talk to your daughters before the beauty industry does?” After all, their brand portfolio happens to include products like Slim Fast and Fair and Lovely, the leading skin-lightening cream for women in India. And of course, Lynx.

Given the above, it is no great leap for consumers to swap the word “advertising” for “beauty” in the Dove statement, positioning Unilever as part of the problem, not the solution. The YouTube parody was waiting to happen.

Increasing levels of education and popular consumer activism are showing that today’s consumers care about the values and ethics of parent companies.

So, will the real Unilever please stand up?

Are they confused, or do they believe they can be divorced and firewalled from the values of their portfolio brands?

The truth is, Unilever are probably not confused at all. They have pursued these two contradictory extremes for almost a decade and have undoubtedly pondered and researched the risks and benefits, over and over. And decided they can get away with it.

The problem is, the Lynx communications now make the Dove campaign seem pious, even disingenuous and cynical.

I think consumers, should they be confronted with this contradiction, will have a simple response. The word that comes to mind is, hypocrisy.

And here’s the rub. Unilever like to say, “Every day, 150 million times a day, someone will choose a Unilever product.” That’s what their $79 billion valuation is built upon. Looking at their portfolio, at least 80 percent of those choices are probably made by women. And good chunk of them are mums.

It is an established fact that women care about the values of companies they buy from. They are also, by far, the most active gender in social media when it comes to both sharing and building communities around brands and causes.

From Koni to Qantas to Yumi, we’ve recently seen how social media can start a fire.

Big corporations have always made big targets.

Unilever is sitting on a powder keg playing with matches.

Hypocrisy on a grand scale has a habit of blowing up on a grand scale. Just ask News Corp.

  • miles mainwaringMiles Mainwaring is the director at Hello I’m Venus, an agency that specialises in marketing to women.


  1. Sean
    22 Jun 12
    12:18 pm

  2. “It is an established fact that women care about the values of companies they buy from.”

    Maybe not as established as you think Miles. Lynx target market is 13 to 20yo males. In my experience less than 1% of this age group do their own shopping. Therefore Mothers buy Lynx for their sons and continue to do so in preference to any other brand. If they cared so much about the ads, why do they keep buying?

  3. AdGrunt
    22 Jun 12
    12:53 pm

  4. It’s almost as if Unilever (and P&G, etc.) have a house of brands for a reason.

    They are a parent company that produces differentiated products to fit various customer segments.

    Lynx is aimed at hormone-filled teens who view authority and conforming with disdain. And so with this insight they market appropriately.

    Lobby groups such as MTR and her twin-set chums bite on this as self-appointed moral guardians. Because they have no actual supportable point to make, but feel compelled by their misplaced moral superiority to impose their warped need for control on the rest of society. It’s actually quite sad to watch them.

    The real challenge is for companies and marketers to quantify and manage the pearl-clutching wowsers, not alienate the silent majority who honestly realise that the fabric of society isn’t destroyed by a few testicle jokes that weren’t aimed at them. In the same way that they don’t give a toss about the daft husband stereotype.

    ps – You’re also drawing a disingenuously long bow to equate Newscorp’s illegal UK phone hacking and related criminal activity, with vocal customer angst at multi-product marketing.

  5. jt
    22 Jun 12
    1:00 pm

  6. I feel like I just read this in SMH yesterday… de ja vu

  7. bandit
    22 Jun 12
    1:10 pm

  8. I refuse to buy Dove products because of the opinions shared above, yet I buy Lynx for my husband because I like him smelling like a giant chocolate sundae.
    Unilever get away with the hypocrisy because at the supermarket we would have to get over our own hypocrisy before challenging theirs.
    Also, every brand has a bad back story – I still feel bad buying Nestle products because of an African exploitation story doing the rounds in the late ‘90s.
    It’s too hard to get grocery shopping done while thinking about the ethical consequences of each item.
    Mind you, I would switch in a heartbeat if someone else brought out a male deodorant that I liked the smell of. I may buy the stuff, but I still hide it in my trolley.

  9. anon
    22 Jun 12
    1:14 pm

  10. I’m not sure about this at all. They’re different business units under the Unilever brand. Nobody gets up Coca Cola for making coke as well as drinks for malnurished children in the third world. Nor, for that matter, does anyone care that an agency might work with different clients with different messages, markets etc that sometimes conflict.

    “So, does Unilever believe the famous Dove “Real Beauty” campaign cry, “Talk to your daughters before the beauty industry does?”

    I think it is important to believe in your product as well as your message but I also think there’s an element that these people are employed to do a job (and they’ve done it quite well, at least with Dove) and that they adopt a strategy that suits the brand they’re working on. Hypocrisy it isn’t. Unless hypocrisy and marketing are one and the same.

  11. NA
    22 Jun 12
    1:43 pm

  12. 2 different brands + 2 different target audience = 2 different brand strategies, both effectively speaking to their target audience.

    That’s not hypocrisy, that’s effective marketing

  13. AB
    22 Jun 12
    2:02 pm

  14. Well Anon may have hit the nail on the head “Hypocrisy it isn’t. Unless hypocrisy and marketing are one and the same.”

  15. Straight Shooter
    22 Jun 12
    3:17 pm

  16. Well said NA – hit the NAil on the head.

  17. Dove user
    22 Jun 12
    3:59 pm

  18. This doesn’t make any sense. I use Dove. I don’t care about what Unilever does with Lynx (and I do know they own both brands). I think the examples Miles uses – Qantas, Koni and Yumi – are so completely different to a company with multiple brands with each having their own identity. Well done on Unilever for keeping their campaigns true to the product users and target audience.

    There are so many companies with different (and often contradictory) campaigns for products within their portfolio – doesn’t make them hypocrites. If a campaign is extremely sexist, I will take offense to that brand and not others in the portfolio. I’m not speaking as a marketing expert – just as a consumer, a woman and user of social media.

  19. DH
    22 Jun 12
    4:53 pm

  20. Let’s get off our high horse here!

    Are you talking about the executions or the overall values of the corporate body or the individual brands as they all seem to be doing their job to their respective audiences?

    I think there seems to be confiusion about the corporate values and individual product brand values as they can be different and is why former is normally general and the latter is specific.

    I accept your point that things can blow up online but do you really think this is in the same vein as your examples of child exploitation in Africa, major national infrastructure disruptions, illegal phone hacking and bribery or demeaning an Australian serviceman?

  21. CSS
    23 Jun 12
    8:10 am

  22. I’m not sure if this opinion post is completely off or way ahead of its time.

    I do believe that as social media and the information superhighway grow bigger and become more accessible, it is very likely that people would have done enough research to know who owns their favourite brand. This could soon be as common as knowing Coca-Cola owns Sprite and Fanta. And yes, if Coca-Cola pissed me off via any means, I’d probably stop buying the latter. Ditto for Qantas and Jetstar.

    Or the world could be moving the other way where consumers care less about who owns their favourite brands. This might come true if the startup and crowd sourcing generation gains momentum. We’ll wait and see.

  23. Kate
    26 Jun 12
    6:26 pm

  24. Unilever are clever marketers but integrity isn’t one of their guiding principles. Just ask their employees.