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.

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