Behind Dove's 'Real Beauty'

Two years ago, during a strategy meeting, a largely female agency-client team tried to convey to their male colleagues the feelings of frustration that women feel when confronted with most beauty advertising. The team had been interviewing women to find out how they feel about beauty and the way they are portrayed in the media to determine how best to market Dove’s growing product line. With a brand story that began after World War II with its cleansing Beauty Bar, Dove in recent years had expanded into hair, deodorant and skin-firming products and was seeking a powerful global message to make Dove as iconic as Nike or Apple.

“We knew the way beauty brands behaved and the way they portrayed women wasn’t quite right,” says Olivia Johnson, strategic planner on Dove at Ogilvy & Mather in London, which had been working with client global brand director Sylvia Lagnado to develop a worldwide strategy. “The team’s intuitive sense as human beings was that it made them feel a bit demoralized and a bit miserable. It makes you feel deflated when you see the gap between these images of perfection and your own physical reality,” Johnson says.

Discussions with feminist scholars such as Naomi Wolf, Gloria Steinem and Susie Orbach confirmed their suspicions—they should create advertising that challenges conventional stereotypes of beauty. But getting the men on the team to understand required a little finesse. Creative director Dennis Lewis was skeptical of the strategy at first, until talking to his wife and hearing this analogy from a woman, the agency’s global category partner, Daryl Fielding: “Imagine thinking every day that your dick isn’t big enough. Men just aren’t surrounded by images that make them feel deeply insecure.”

This compelling comparison helped Lewis and Ogilvy’s Düsseldorf cd Joerg Herzog create Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” with its white-panty-clad brigade of real women that’s now ubiquitous on bus shelters, billboards and inside magazines. “It made me think, ‘I guess this is what women face daily, isn’t it?'” says Lewis, who explains that when the team viewed the competition’s ads for firming lotions and creams, they were struck by the fact that most used images of size 2 teenagers who wouldn’t need such products.

Dove commissioned a global report prepared by Dr. Nancy Etcoff, a Harvard University professor and author of Survival of the Prettiest, and Orbach, author of Fat is a Feminist Issue. The results of surveying 3,200 women confirmed what the company suspected—only 2 percent of women worldwide considered themselves beautiful. The client and agency knew there was a powerful sentiment that hadn’t been tapped. Although Dove has a history of using real women in its advertising, instead of professional models or actors, the agency decided to make a bolder statement about real women and beauty than it ever had in the past.

“We wanted to democratize beauty and make more women feel more included in its definition rather than excluded,” says Johnson. “At its broadest, it hits all these women that actually have felt a degree of demoralizing or annoyed by the imagery around them. We’re talking to all women who have had that sense of exasperation.”

The strategy was developed into two creative approaches. One, a general branding effort, featured an eye-catching series of print and outdoor with photographs of real women—including wrinkles, freckled faces and full figures. Launched in the U.S. in September 2004, the ads included a tick-box style query urging viewers to decide the hypothetical questions posed in each ad, such as “Wrinkled?” or “Wonderful?” A tag line directed consumers to the campaign’s Web site ( to vote on and debate beauty issues. But it was this summer’s firming ads that got the most buzz in the U.S., including coverage in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and on The Today Show and CNN.

Like the tick-box campaign, the skin-firming ads showed real women who were found in health clubs, yoga studios, on the street and from open auditions. The criteria: they couldn’t be professional actors or models, and they had to have curves and a certain amount of charisma. Cast in cities around the U.S., once chosen, the women had to use the firming products for several weeks before being photographed. “They were all chosen because they seem to have something over and above their physical looks that make them vivid,” says Johnson.

The original idea for the firming campaign, which first launched in Europe in the spring of 2004, says Lewis, was to recreate iconic images of curvy women, from Venus rising from the ocean to Marilyn Monroe’s skirt blowing up. But those famous images “got in the way” of the real-women message, he says. He asked noted fashion photographer Rankin what he would do instead. “He said, ‘Let them be themselves,'” says Lewis.

Is it working? Female marketing executives predict this is the start of something. “This is the tipping point. I think we are going to be seeing a lot more of this. There are a lot of women in marketing today … and they are all saying, ‘See, I told you (real women) would work,'” says Marti Barletta, a former ad executive, the author of Marketing to Women: How to Understand, Reach and Increase Your Share of the Largest Market Segment and president of The TrendSight Group in Winnetka, Ill. “This is a radical departure for packaged-goods advertising, and thanks to all the attention these ads are getting, the Dove brand has really been elevated in the esteem of a lot of women.”

With lofty goals such as redefining beauty, success can hardly be measured solely in sales figures. However, for the year ending Aug. 7, Dove’s total U.S. dollar sales rose 6 percent to $500 million, and unit sales rose 5 percent, compared to the year-ago period, according to Information Resources Inc. And dollar sales jumped 2 percent in just one month, from July to August, when the campaign was garnering major mass-media attention. As for brand awareness, Philippe Harousseau, marketing director of Dove, says, “More than 1 million women around the world have visited the Web site and voted on the images. Hundreds of thousands have told us that they felt the campaign was refreshing and inspirational.”

Retail analyst Marshall Cohen of the NPD Group in Port Washington, New York, says the grooming category is a very crowded field, and Dove’s “Real Beauty” niche gives the brand a competitive advantage. “This is about selling realism, not selling fantasy. This campaign is addressing key issues and connecting with women in ways that people have not connected in a long time,” says Cohen. “Dove is not promising the puffy lips (or thighs) of a 16-year-old. It’s promising issues that real women are concerned with.”

The ads, which have received considerable press both in the U.S. and overseas, are also benefitting from the “water cooler effect” invaluable in selling a new product, he adds. “People are talking about the products because of this campaign,” says Cohen.

Recent focus group tests confirm that the campaign “is changing the way people perceive the brand,” says Michelle Edelman, director of planning at Ogilvy in Chicago. “Women regard it as an old-fashioned, caring brand and cleansing brand, but one of the shifts we’re making is talking about it as a contemporary beauty brand.”

But even with the highest hopes the agency had for the effort, it is exceeding expectations. “We hoped it would draw attention, but it’s been a lot better than we expected,” says Deb Boyda, managing partner of Ogilvy’s Chicago office, which created the U.S. campaign. “The traffic and the comments on the Web site and the depth and connection to the idea that comes through in consumer’s reactions makes it clear we have touched a chord with people.”