By Isobel Chiang
They say necessity is the mother of invention (humans required a more efficient mode of locomotion, so we invented the wheel; college students wanted a virtual way to connect to their friends, so Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook). Such is true for Dove, who, back in 2004 were suffering from low sales in an abysmally crowded and over-saturated market. So Dove’s parent company, Unilever, created The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty.Ten years after the campaign’s inception, the Campaign for Real Beauty has had its fair share of fans and critics. Some see it as a revolutionary breath of fresh air, others as a dualistic marketing ploy. Let’s get one thing straight: the Campaign for Real Beauty is a marketing campaign, a multinational juggernaut of a marketing campaign to be exact. And of course it has driven sales for Dove, as is the goal of sophisticated, strategic advertising. But the campaign is so much more than that: at its root, it is a catalyst for social change. What Dove has proven is that marketing and social responsibility are not mutually exclusive; rather, true social change occurs at the synergistic intersection between the two.According to the CFRB’s website, “The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty is a global effort that is intended to serve as a starting point for societal change and act as a catalyst for widening the definition and discussion of beauty. The campaign supports the Dove mission: to make women feel more beautiful every day by challenging today’s stereotypical view of beauty and inspiring women to take great care of themselves.” Dove’s campaign seeks to rewire society’s hegemonic, narrow-minded, and racialized definition of beauty. A touch mountain to climb, as one can imagine, for beauty in its ideological form is socially engrained and highly ritualized. Put simply, beauty is told rather than felt. A girl is told she is beautiful, and then—and only then—can she feel beautiful herself. This one-way, dictatorial relationship with beauty is precisely what Dove is trying to change.So how was Dove able to tackle such an immense social issue? Notice Dove marketers never use the word “solve” in their campaign rhetoric. Instead, they use the word “change.” Dove is not trying to solve anything— they are simply trying to change the discussion that surrounds beauty. This is empowerment marketing at its finest: Dove doesn’t focus on how great its products are, it focuses on the greatness inside of you.What can companies learn from the Campaign for Real Beauty?1. Don’t over-extend yourselfWhen trying to tackle a complex social issue, companies often promise to “end world hunger,” or “solve global poverty”, but end up falling short. The subtle yet important decision to focus on changing the conversation rather than making grandiose promises ensured Dove had a much higher chance at success simply because they did overextend themselves.2. No issue is “too big”Changing the social constructions of beauty was— and still is— a monumental and overwhelming task for Dove to undertake, yet 10 years later the campaign is still going strong. Not to mention it has been a blockbuster hit for sales. The ROI for the campaign? $3 in sales for every $1 spent. For the first year alone sales reached 1 billion, vastly exceeding Unilever’s expectations. Dove even tapped into influencer marketing when given free ad space during the Ellen Degeneres and Oprah Winfrey shows. Using an integrated marketing approach, Dove released “Real Beauty Sketches” on YouTube, which eventually became the most watched video ad of all time. The social and economic ROI of the campaign shows how companies can align themselves with huge, often overwhelming social issues if they focus on raising awareness and starting conversations rather than promising solutions. Love it or hate it, the Campaign for Real Beauty can be used as a highly educational case study for companies hoping to expand their social footprint. Dove’s undeniably successful marketing approach, which leverages both traditional and digital platforms, can be co-opted by companies in order to raise awareness around a cause. Yes, there are undeniable flaws in the campaign, like the fact that Unilever also owns Axe, a company notorious for its sexist, retrogressive, and hyper-masculine marketing approach— an approach that directly contradicts all that the Campaign for Real Beauty stands for. And yes, Dove could have done a better job at addressing this obvious disconnection by responding head on to consumer criticism, but perhaps that will come in due time.In the end, Dove has shown that making an impact starts with a conversation. Ten years ago when the Campaign for Real Beauty came out, Dove didn’t have social media as a vehicle for change, but now inspiring new conversations is easier than ever. If Dove can use a plain white bar of soap to change the way women (and men) think about beauty, then the scale, scope, and social impact of business is limitless.