Alessandro Manfredi

Alessandro Manfredi

Marketer of the Week

A Career of Care: Dove's Chief Marketing Officer on 28 Years At Unilever

Alessandro Manfredi looks back over his near-three decades as a marketer at the fmcg giant and his success since The Campaign for Real Beauty broke sector boundaries

By Stephen Lepitak

If marketing influences consumer behaviour, then surely there is little doubt that Dove has done so for the better over the course of the last 20 years.

And that stems largely from one initiative: 'The Campaign for Real Beauty', which has changed the advertising world as well as the fortunes of the Unilever brand.

Now one of the recent driving forces behind the strategy, Dove's CMO Alessandro Manfredi, is stepping down after 28 years at the multi-national behemoth. He certainly leaves on a high, with Unilever just feted as the Cannes Lions Creative Marketer Of The Year, an accolade in no small part earned by the work Manfredi and his team at Ogilvy have created for Dove.

So to mark his departure we caught up with Manfredi to discuss his experiences building Dove and his observations about the future of marketing.

The Vision Book

Manfredi’s marketing career was not planned. He initially began lecturing and researching management, communications and marketing at Milan’s Bocconi University, where he found he enjoyed “the human side” of management most. However, instead of continuing a university career and studying for a PhD, he chose to enter the world of research and marketing, sending his CV to major companies and eventually landing within Unilever.

He first encountered the Dove brand as a trainee, where he assisted work on its first brand extension beyond soap and body wash with Dove Deodorant. Then after six years within the business, in 2002 he moved to the US as Unilever introduced global teams having previously operated using a multi-local model. He was appointed as a director to work on Dove alongside Silvia Lagnado who was Unilever’s very first global brand leader on the brand. That partnership, working alongside Ogilvy, would lead to the development of the industry-changing Real Beauty work.

And so it began. The group spent many sleepless nights developing The Dove Vision book, compiled to record the values and personality of the brand – something Unilever was developing for each of its key brands at the time, offering marketers and partners a blueprint for the future. The book still exists to this day, but it would be one chapter, around the need for Dove to project real images of women through its communications, that would in time become the core focus for the brand’s evolution.

“People loved the brand for the reason of the products, but they had very little emotional connection with the brand," Manfredi explains. "So the exercise that we were doing in writing the book was to say, ‘How can we redefine the vision of the brand by being at the heart really of what makes it loved by consumers?’ But at the same time, we wanted to make it much more modern or contemporary and relevant from an emotional point of view to consumers, because it was only loved because of the functional benefits. So we went and looked at what made this brand different from an emotional point of view.”

He would travel the world to lead the resulting Brand Stewardship workshops for internal teams, which is where they began to realise the power of the Real Beauty message. The brand’s democratic approach to beauty, by being real and honest while speaking to women in local markets and regions, proved to be a major differentiator as competitors featured models who looked happy and perfect.

“This is not our DNA,” he says. "We never thought about Real Beauty as a principle. It was only when we started to go in deeper – less talking to consumers and more to psychologists and sociologists… and everyone was saying that there was a lot of suffering out there because of perfect beauty.”

Manfredi admits to feeling nervous when the first campaign was unveiled in New York, and while to some it would initially provoke consternation in time it would also draw worldwide praise, including from Oprah Winfrey no less. Over the years, ‘The Campaign for Real Beauty’ has provoked other beauty companies to reconsider their own approach to retouching marketing images, yet parading unattainable perfection remains an issue for the industry.

‘Now everybody does it [Real Beauty], but I think we helped start the movement. We helped unlock a conversation that was due and what we learned was that we needed to continue to unlock the conversation,” Manfredi states.

Alongside the Campaign For Real Beauty, the Dove Vision book would also quickly produce the Dove Self Esteem Project too.

Manfredi moved to the UK in 2005 as the global VP of Dove Masterbrand and Deodorants, and within five years he doubled the turnover of the deodorant while also initiating a brand extension for men – Dove Men+Care, which is itself on the way to becoming a €1 billion brand.

A return to Italy in 2009 saw him take the reins of Unilever’s Oral Health brands, before he moved back to the UK in 2015 as VP of global marketing hair care, which included overseeing Dove Hair's growth to become another €1 billion brand.

And proving that life can be cyclical, five years ago he returned to Dove once again, only this time as its chief marketing officer, achieving over €6 billion turnover in 2023 and delivering its highest growth for 11 years.

The brand has also continued to impress the marketing community, winning 52 Cannes Lions during that tenure alone. And the brand purpose has remained always evident, evolving from addressing the false presentation of women across mainstream media to tackling how young girls perceive others across social media, and now the challenges that come with the advent of generative artificial intelligence.

Alongside ‘Real Beauty’ Manfredi cites the work of the Dove team at the outbreak of the global pandemic as a career highlight, working within seven days to change tack briefly away from focusing on self-esteem to communicate something salient to the world, while remaining true to the brand’s purpose. That produced the ‘Courage is Beautiful’ campaign through Ogilvy London – a series of portraits of real frontline healthcare workers, wearing the toll of the pandemic on their faces.

“I can tell you about many situations where you have a crisis, and your purpose comes and gives you the answer straight away. Purpose is not only powerful because it generates connection and growth, but it's also a compass in a difficult world,” he adds.

Daniel Fisher, the global executive creative director for Unilever at Ogilvy, cites the trust Manfredi has offered the agency over the years as being pivotal to the success of their decades-old partnership.

"In this industry we talk a lot about trust being at the heart of all the best client-agency relationships. Typically though, that trust is normally framed as a one-way street - the client trusts in their creative agency. But with Ale it works both ways. He has unwavering faith in our judgement, and we have absolute belief in his."

Having worked together since 'Courage is Beautiful', Fisher describes Manfredi as becoming "more like a creative partner" over the years.

"When I look back at the work we’ve made together over the past five years, from 'Courage' to 'Reverse Selfie' to 'Turn Your Back' to 'Cost of Beauty' and all the rest, I can clearly remember his contribution to the finished creative product and it was always invaluable," Fisher continues.

Manfredi is a rare breed of marketer that has a history tied to one particular brand that has achieved what many others covet - commercial and creative success while making a lasting impact on society. That impact - his legacy - looks likely to continue for many more years to come.


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