All You Need is Dove: Celebrating nearly two decades of brand activism

Dove has a long history of promoting self-esteem in women. We speak to some of the key people behind its mission to debunk beauty stereotypes

By Caroline Parry

As the mother of a young daughter rapidly approaching her tween years, Dove’s “#DetoxYourFeed” campaign aimed at tackling digital distortion among young girls is nothing short of terrifying.

The “Toxic Influence” film, created by Ogilvy and launched at the end of April, is the latest execution in Dove’s nearly 20-year-old campaign that aims to debunk beauty stereotypes and promote self-esteem in women and girls across the world.

Using the new “Let’s Change Beauty” platform, launched last year, "Toxic Influence" builds on last year’s “Reverse Selfie” work, which again sought to tackle the digital distortion caused by filters and social media. Both are confrontational campaigns highlighting how far Dove has come from that iconic image of women of all shapes and sizes giggling in their underwear.

Alessandro Manfredi, chief marketing director at Unilever-owned Dove, says the central idea of real beauty remains the brand’s driving force. He adds: “We have evolved our focus as now more than ever, those narrow definitions of beauty are surrounding us on social media as well in print or TV.

“This means we need to be even more intentional than ever and take action. We need to help create real tangible change with the beauty industry, making it a positive space for everyone. One example of where we knew we needed to take urgent action was in relation to digital distortion.”

Shocking and emotional

"Toxic Influence" is a stark take on that issue. Mums and daughters have been invited into a studio to talk about social media, and, at first, it’s a mixed bag. Yes, social media can be bad, but it can also positively influence girls, helping to build their confidence.

The girls are then asked to start scrolling. Various beauty influencers appear on a big screen before the image abruptly switches to the mothers, who begin dispensing increasingly questionable and, at times, shocking beauty “advice”.

The viewers know this has been created using face-mapping technology, but the mother-daughter duos do not. “That is not me,” exclaims one mum, as she appears in the video suggesting you are never too young to start using Botox.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of this hard-hitting film is that while the mums find the content shocking and emotional, their daughters say they see this kind of content regularly. Alongside the film, Dove has launched tools to help parents, carers, and young people better understand social media and encourage girls to #detoxyourfeed.

“We have re-ignited the real beauty conversation under the new communications platform, Let’s Change Beauty,” adds Manfredi. “It’s an ‘actionist’ movement across the entire Dove brand, showing the world that every commitment we make is matched with a tangible Brand Do, a concrete action that will drive change.”

Pioneering work

In this Instagram age of filtered images, snappy reels and perfect influencers, it is almost impossible to conceive how pioneering the original campaign in 2004 actually was. Shot by edgy fashion photographer Rankin, it caused a media storm as Dove “dumped” stick-thin models in favour of real curvy women.

Purpose-led marketing was not the buzzword it has become (or has been), but the thinking by Dove and Ogilvy, which has been the brand’s agency since 1954, was intentional and imbued a mission of change from the outset.

In the early 2000s, Dove was primarily a soap brand, noted for its one quarter moisturising Beauty Bar, but its ambition was to expand into the broader beauty market. In 2004, it was launching a firming lotion and needed a vibrant and fresh campaign to support it.

Starting with a research insight that found just 2 per cent of women consider themselves beautiful and 50 per cent thought beauty was too narrowly defined, the Ogilvy teamed carried out a creative review and found the advertising made the women in the room feel inadequate. In fact, all beauty advertising made them feel ugly.

Daryl Fielding, who led the Dove team at Ogilvy when the campaign launched, says it was the perfect product for this new approach to marketing. “The firming lotion was a gift. I am not sure we would have found a beauty purpose in deodorant.”

The lotion offered the opportunity to show off some curves, some real curves on real women. The first idea of shooting real women in iconic images, such as the Marilyn Monore skirt over the air vent picture, failed to inspire and was binned. It was Rankin who suggested just shooting the women as they were.

“We were still writing the copy forty-eight hours ahead of it going to press,” says Fielding. “But getting something that is excellent and really different is hard work. We didn’t get everything right, but 20 years on, I think the idea is more relevant than ever.”

Malcolm Poynton, who was executive creative director at Ogilvy at that time, says it was the success of that first image and the meteoric sales that convinced the team that the tone was right. Sales of the firming lotion surpassed the launch target by 700 per cent.

“It’s always going to be a super fine balance that sees purpose-based communications land right. It all starts with authenticity – in both what the product or brand delivers as well as the execution of the communications.

“In Dove’s case, we knew we had to have an inviting and inclusive tone to take people with us rather than the ‘preachy’ or ‘trying too hard to be different’ approach that so many brands fall for.”

Strategically sound

While there is no doubt that the core purpose of Dove’s campaign – to promote self-esteem and make beauty a source of confidence rather than anxiety – is more relevant today than ever, that is not necessarily why the campaign has endured.

For Richard Morris, founder of branding and design agency Whistlejacket, its longevity lies in its single-minded commitment to having a core purpose. “It is like a thread of steel running through everything the brand does. It is entirely consistent and driven by that purpose. What is brave about it is the completeness of its stance.”

It is why Dove has been forgiven the odd misstep, believes Morris. Think the limited edition “body shape” bottles, which consumers found insulting rather than inspiring, and its campaign around breastfeeding, which received hundreds of complaints to the ASA. “Even where the work hasn’t hit the right mark, the central purpose has remained strategically sound.”

At the same time, brand-owner Unilever has also remained committed to the strategy. Fielding says: “The idea has its detractors from the beginning. Dove was an important brand to Unilever even, and a failure would have affected the share price.

“We were intentional about building a campaign that would last. We were thinking a five-year timeline at the very least, and I think Unilever deserve credit for not throwing out that campaign as marketing chiefs have come and gone over the years.”

That the campaign continues to deliver growth is, of course, central to Unilever’s continued support. Manfredi adds: “Our purpose is to make a positive experience of beauty universally accessible to every woman and shapes all facets of our brand – our business, communication, creativity and the products that serve people around the world.

“This approach not only drives impact, but it also drives growth. Dove continues to grow because it is built on purpose.”

Enduring stance

As Dove’s stance on real beauty has endured, so too has the number of projects it covers. While everything sits instead its wider Self-Esteem Project, which began in 2004, Dove is involved in initiatives such as #ProjectShowUs, creating a stock photo library for women and non-binary people. It aims to debunk serotypes of beauty and improve representation.

In 2019, it also co-founded the CROWN Coalition in partnership with Color of Change, the National Urban League and the Western Centre on Law and Poverty to advocate for a ban on race-based hair discrimination. While its No Digital Distortion Mark builds on its original Real Beauty Pledge.

As climate change and sustainability become more important to consumers, Dove also intends to address these issues by reducing its manufacture of virgin plastics, launching a 100 per cent recycled plastic bottle and trialling a refillable deodorant format.

“What we know is consumers expect brands to have a viewpoint on social issues that affect them. They want brands to walk the talk and will vote with their wallet,” says Manfredi.

“It’s not about just having a purpose or doing a purposeful ad; it needs to be backed up with action. That’s why for Dove, everything we do is for women and girls; the actions we take are to help make systemic change that doesn’t hold back the next generation.”

Q&A with Daniel Fisher, Global ECD, Unilever and Special Projects, Ogilvy

When Dove began its purpose-led work, it was centred clearly on the concept of real beauty. Is real beauty still at the heart of the work, or would you define it differently now? What has driven that evolution?

Well the notion of real beauty has always been at the heart of the Dove brand. It stems right back to the days when David Ogilvy himself used to write the ads and would only cast real women, something nobody else was doing back then. So it is a huge part of the brand’s DNA and always will be. But the focus of the brand has evolved over time and the new platform, ‘Let’s change beauty’, aims to highlight and actively change the modern societal threats to the confidence and self-esteem of young girls, whether it’s the photo editing apps of Reverse Selfie or the toxic beauty advice of ‘Toxic influence’.

From Ogilvy's point of view, what are the important moments or turning points in the history of Dove's campaigning work? Has there been a point when moving away from this purpose-led agenda has been considered?

When I started working on the brand at the end of 2019, I looked at all the work the network had done to date and there were clearly these three very big, seminal moments in the recent history of the brand : the launch of the Real Beauty platform with the underwear campaign in 2004, Evolution in 2006 and Real Beauty Sketches in 2013. All of it work that had not only had a big cultural impact on the world but which had also led to huge growth. So dropping this kind of purpose work is certainly not something we’ve ever talked about. In fact, when I first met Ale, back in late 2019, we bonded over the belief that we needed to get this kind of work back on track.

How has the growth of purpose-led marketing and creative work impacted Dove? Are there lessons you have taken on board from newer brands born out of a purpose led agenda? Do you see other brands taking on aspects of Dove’s work?

When Dove first started doing purpose led work, purpose wasn’t really a thing in marketing. And they were certainly the only brand really doing it in this space. Now there are many brands out there championing the welfare and wellbeing of women. And that’s great, because the kind of changes we need to see in society will only happen if everyone’s asking for them. It would be hypocritical of us to say “this needs to change but only we are allowed to say that”. Indeed, the great purpose work that’s come from brands such as Always and Bodyform in recent years has spurred us to continue to raise our own bar.

When the campaign launched, was there a sense it would have this longevity? Was that a goal? How much longer can it continue?

I’m not sure anyone could have predicted that the campaign would still be going so strongly 18 years later but one of the best things about it as a platform is its ability to adapt to the times. I think as long as there’s a societal need for it to be around, it’s a campaign that can and will continue to evolve.

Dove's key campaigns

Tested on Real Curves

The pioneering execution that kicked off Dove’s whole purpose agenda. It was borne out of Silvia Lagnado, Dove’s then global head of brand, vision to make Dove as iconic as Nike or Apple. Ogilvy found that the secret of their success was standing for something bigger than product delivery. “We set that as our magnetic north,” says Fielding.

This billboard campaign for Dove Firming caused a media furore, provoked national debate and polarised public opinion for using real curvy women instead of size eight models. It had its detractors, with some saying the women were not real enough, but nearly 20 years on, this execution is still remembered for its brave stance.

The Campaign for Real Beauty

Launched in 2005, the Campaign for Real Beauty built on the Tested on Real Curves execution but went beyond body positivity to challenge more beauty industry stereotypes.

Shot again by Rankin, this campaign consisted of six executions that featured a “controversial” photo of a real woman next to two tick boxes, one positive and one negative.

One poster featured a 96-year-old woman from North London alongside two boxes marked “wrinkled?” and “wonderful?”. Another showed a woman with long grey hair and asked, “grey?” or “gorgeous?”

Real Beauty Sketches

Less than a month after this film was launched in 2013, it became the most viewed viral ad at that time, clocking up 144 million views.

The short film features an FBI-trained sketch artist drawing women first based on their own description of themselves and then on a description from a stranger. The stranger’s descriptions produced a more attractive picture and were more similar to how the woman looked in almost all cases.

It ran with the strapline: You are more beautiful than you think.” Highlighting research that 54 per cent of women agreed they were their own harshest critics regarding their appearance.

The three-minute film did not contain a single mention of Dove products.

Reverse Selfie

Marking its shift towards a new “actionist” stance for Dove, this was the first execution to launch under its Let’s Change Beauty communications platform.

The film begins with an image that a young girl has posted of herself on her socials. It then rewinds to show all of the stages this heavily tweaked, filtered and edited image has undergone to reveal a shockingly young girl left at the end.

Based on the insight that by the age of 13 years old, 80 per cent of girls have applied a filter or an app to change their look in pictures, while 77 per cent change or hide a body feature before posing on social media.


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