The bad news for consumers is that just two percent of today's women see themselves as beautiful. On the upside, Dove is seeking a change in society's view of beauty amidst talk of positive body image and boosting women's self esteem.
On the face of it, Unilever's self-appointed role as 'cosmetics company with a cause' is laudable enough. With visitors flocking to the Campaign For Real Beauty's website, Dove has clearly captured the public's imagination. The longevity of the programme is less clear, resting on two, as yet untested, assumptions.
The first is that Dove will be able to change how people think about beauty.
The second is that consumers really want this to happen. While time will tell whether the first assumption is true, the second is altogether more intriguing.
Charles Revson, founder of Revlon, is famously quoted as saying "In our factory we make cosmetics. In the store we sell hope". This is the crux of the issue: that the beauty industry is driven by consumers' dreams and aspirations. Companies like Unilever underestimate this aspirational essence at their peril.
When women gaze upon images of airbrushed beauty, perhaps they are indulging in an impossible dream, escaping humdrum lives and the daily grind. Maybe this is just innocent enjoyment, the beauty equivalent of buying a lottery ticket. Why else have such iconic figures adorned billboards, magazines and TV screens for so long?
It's not yet clear whether Revson's sentiments about cosmetics and hope still have resonance today. But if women reject these beauty stereotypes, the implications for the beauty business will be huge.
Each consumer is unique - a complex array of needs and desires, of hopes, fears and aspirations. Experts explain this diversity in relation to a mix of factors which influence consumer behaviour. The goods we aspire to, the adverts we like, the stores we prefer, the products we choose; all are shaped by these influences.
In their well-known consumer behaviour text, Roger Blackwell and colleagues talk about two groups of influencing factors: environmental, which include our culture, social class, personal influences and reference groups; and individual, encompassing our demographics, personality, motivation, knowledge, attitudes and values. It is in teasing out these multifaceted issues that the consumer's true make-up is revealed.
Let's take the category that Blackwell and colleagues call reference group influences as an example. These reference groups include everyone and anyone who influences our attitudes or behaviour. Starting close to home, this covers our peers, friends, family, and work colleagues. It also includes iconic figures such as sporting heroes, media personalities and rock stars. In combination these reference groups have a powerful influence on the socialization of us all.
The desire to 'fit in with the crowd' is very strong. This is why teenagers blow their pocket money on music and clothes their peers think are cool. It's the reason Chavs don Burberry caps, wear 'bling' jewellery and hang out at fast-food outlets. It's even why our next-door neighbours clean their cars on Sundays. All consumers crave social acceptance and the approval of others. In this respect, we've all got a little bit of 'Chav' in us!
Blackwell and his colleagues explain it like this: "Belonging to groups, trying to 'fit in,' and striving to please others affect the life choices and purchase decisions that individuals make". Fitting in can become a major preoccupation. We compare ourselves with others, worry about 'doing the right thing' and agonise over how we are viewed by our peers. Modifying our behaviour to fit in more easily is part of this pattern. Buying goods such as cosmetics, clothing and luxury items that affect self-image, assists these efforts to conform.
Experts agree that understanding the subtleties of consumer behaviour is critical to competitive success. Most also accept that consumers construct their social identities through the products and services they consume. As Professor Gillian Hogg explains in her essay Consumer Changes, "the challenge for marketers is to find a means of coming to terms with a non-rational, identity-seeking consumer, focused on the symbolism of consumption as much as the commodity itself". Put more simply, it's a bit like saying that 'we are what we eat'…. and 'the clothes we wear, the cosmetics we use, the car we drive, the places we hang out…'
So will Dove succeed in changing the face of the beauty business? Will women embrace the use of more 'normal' body images in advertising, or will decades of stereotypical 'beauty' prove too strong?
The answer lies in how much has changed and how much has not. The words of George Fellows, the current CEO of Revlon, offer insight into the situation. "In the past, the dream of the cosmetic industry was to sell 'hope in a bottle'…. The definitive dream today is a more practical, realistic and achievable objective. We are not in the business of selling fantasies, we are in the business of selling dreams, aspirations that are achievable rather than fantasies that are not likely to happen".
While a change of body cream, soap or eye shadow can be easily achieved, human nature will take longer to remodel. Then again, if beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, perhaps it doesn't matter that much anyway!
Article first published 19th June, 2006
'A step forward: In Dove ads, normal is the new beautiful'
Jack Neff in Advertising Age, 27th September 2004
'Consumer Changes'Gillian Hogg in Marketing Changes,
edited by Susan Hard,
published by Thomson, 2003
'Ad campaign tells women to celebrate who they are'
Theresa Howard in USA Today, 8th July, 2005
Roger D Blackwell, Paul W Miniard, James F Engel
Harcourt College Publishers, 2001
Marketing: Concepts and Strategies
Sally Dibb, Lyndon Simkin, O.C. Ferrell and W. Pride
Houghton Mifflin, 2006
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