We see thousands of ads every day, most of which we forget as soon as they leave our line of sight. But once in a while, a campaign sticks with us. It makes us think. It resonates across entire demographic segments, penetrating the zeitgeist so deeply that we simply can’t stop talking about it.
I’m talking about the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign.
In 2004, billboards started popping up around Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom with photographs of women’s faces. This isn’t a groundbreaking strategy: Many brands rely on women’s faces to sell their products. But these women were different. They weren’t models.
They looked like your aunt, your neighbor, your friend from the accounting department, the server at your favorite restaurant. They weren’t airbrushed, photoshopped, or buried under countless layers of product. None of their wrinkles or gray hairs were erased or covered up. They were just … normal women.
The boards had an interactive element: Each woman’s photo was accompanied with a question asking passersby to choose between two words to describe her. Was she “fit” or “fat?” “Gray” or “gorgeous?” “Withered” or “wonderful?” People could text their vote to a number on the billboard and check Dove’s website for the results.
The narrative recast everyday women as inherently worthy, exactly as they were. And the public loved it.
Breaking New Ground
According to the “Encyclopedia of Major Marketing Campaigns,” the campaign generated so much buzz that Dove received free media exposure worth 30 times their initial spend. The campaign’s website drew 1.5 million visitors.
What came next was a slew of viral videos, each designed to showcase that women are, almost without exception, excessively critical of their own appearance, and highlight their true beauty. Dove released a series of lotion ads featuring women of all shapes and sizes in their underwear with the tagline, “Tested on real curves.” Over and over, Dove showcased everyday women over runway models, and everyday women saw themselves represented and celebrated in advertising — often for the very first time.
The success of the campaign was most evident in Dove’s finances: The company increased revenues by 10% in a single year. And nearly 20 years later, the campaign is still running, with plans to expand to the virtual world.
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Why Was the Real Beauty Campaign So Successful?
Aside from the traditional drivers of success, such as strategic ad buys and effective web design, there were a few major factors that contributed to the reach and power of Dove’s Real Beauty campaign:
Dove Tapped Into People’s Emotions
Countless studies have shown that an emotional response is the single most powerful driver for brand loyalty. Old Spice earned its place as a household name by making us laugh, and Coca-Cola has long focused its ad narratives around feelings of togetherness and belonging. In other words, a brand that makes us feel something has a customer for life.
Dove took a big risk by taking aim at one of the greatest insecurities in modern life: Women’s self-image. According to the National Organization for Women, 78% of girls are unhappy with their bodies by the time they turn 17. And 70% of female college students reported feeling worse about their bodies after looking at magazines targeted at women.
Sloppy execution of a campaign with such high emotional stakes could have permanently damaged Dove’s brand reputation. But that didn’t happen. Unlike countless magazines, Dove didn’t make women feel worse when asking them to confront their own bodies. The brand made them feel seen. Women felt celebrated for the bodies they had at that moment, not the bodies they would have after following a celebrity’s workout plan or committing to a new diet.
Dove didn’t leverage fear, shame, or an assumed desire to “be better,” like so many women’s brands before. Instead, they chose empathy — and women felt it.
Everyday Products, Not Specialty Items
The Real Beauty campaign wasn’t designed around a limited-edition makeup palette or expensive, targeted skincare line. The campaign promotes everyday products, such as soap and body wash, that everyone needs. Dove’s commonplace product line made it possible for people to cast a vote for a new paradigm, one that celebrates all bodies, while purchasing an item they needed anyway. This may have been possible with a more specialized product, but the impact would have been smaller.
Affordable, Accessible Products
Compared to many high-end personal care brands, Dove’s entire product line is very affordable. A bar of Dove soap costs less than $2, and a 13.5-ounce bottle of intensive care body lotion is just $6.69. Dove can be purchased at Target, Walmart, and any convenience store, making it extremely easy to procure.
As a result, just about anyone who wanted to support Dove and the Real Beauty campaign could afford to do so. The success of the campaign wasn’t limited to those who had the financial means to purchase the product.
Was the Campaign Simply a Wallet-Liner?
Critics of the Real Beauty campaign have questioned the ulterior motives of its creators. Dove is owned by Unilever, the world’s biggest ice cream manufacturer. Unilever owns Ben & Jerry’s, Breyer’s, and over a dozen other ice cream brands. One could argue that a campaign celebrating bodies of all sizes is simply a strategic financial move by Unilever rather than an altruistic or compassionate one.
In light of that, does Dove truly deserve the praise it has received as a corporate advocate of body acceptance? If Unilever sold diet or weight-loss products — which they don’t — would they have dreamt up the same campaign? Must we reduce the Real Beauty campaign to nothing but an admittedly effective vertical integration strategy, void of any real emotional meaning?
Leaving a Legacy
Of course, we’ll never know. But purity of intentions aside, if the campaign was indeed designed to sell ice cream, one could argue that it was a smart, if dishonest, move. The answer is unlikely to simply be one or the other. Ultimately, for-profit companies launch marketing campaigns to bolster their brand image and make money. If they achieve something else along the way, it’s a laudable bonus.
Intentions aside, Dove’s Real Beauty campaign has left its mark on consumers. The campaign made women feel seen and appreciated in a way that none of Dove’s competitors had ever achieved. Dove cultivated a worldwide feeling of acceptance and self-love, and that is worth celebrating. This campaign will be one for the history books.