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Dove: The Evolution From 'Evolution'

Eight Years Later, How Unilever Brand Scored Another Viral Hit

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Creating a viral megahit twice with the same brand isn't easy, but Unilever has shown it can happen with Dove—albeit with plenty of work and strategy.

Unilever had its first monster hit in the Dove "Real Beauty" campaign with "Evolution" in 2005 from Ogilvy & Mather , Toronto. Nearly eight years later, "Real Beauty Sketches" from Ogilvy Brazil took less than a month to eclipse the reach and impact of its predecessor.

'Real Beauty Sketches'
'Real Beauty Sketches'

"Sketches," which used a law-enforcement sketch artist to show that women see themselves as far less attractive than strangers do, has become among the most-viewed and -shared videos ever. (Whether it's the first or fifth most-viewed viral ad to date is the subject of debate -- but certainly it's off to the fastest start of any.)

In the intervening eight years, Dove tried repeatedly to recapture the magic with numerous efforts in the "Campaign for Real Beauty." They included a co-marketing ad with Walmart and a Facebook "Ad Makeover" campaign last year that let people erase ads they found offensive.

Those did well and won creative awards -- but none drew the attention "Evolution" or "Sketches" has. And each effort since "Evolution" has spawned social-media blowback, often focused on Unilever's different treatment of women in Axe and Dove campaigns.

As Dove's growth slowed in 2007, "Real Beauty" went from being a theme in many product ads back to its roots as a public-relations and brand-equity-building campaign aimed at raising self-esteem in girls and women. In the meantime, product ads leaning heavily on traditional packaged-goods claims helped return Dove to global growth that's propelled Unilever to some of the best top-line numbers in personal care over recent years.

'Real Beauty Evolution'
'Real Beauty Evolution'

Despite appearances, however, Unilever never downplayed "Real Beauty," said Global Senior VP-Dove Steve Miles. All along, Ogilvy has had a global "open brief" to create new work in the campaign. This year, Ogilvy Brazil just happened to come up with a big winner.

So why eight years between big hits? "I don't think really great creativity is ever easy," Mr. Miles said, even if a strong insight behind "Sketches" made it look that way.

Unilever, its PR shop Edelman and its media agencies MindShare and (recently added) PhD, which handled work on "Sketches," also have learned a few tactics for creating viral hits since "Evolution."

While that campaign got no paid media, "Sketches" has had such support from the beginning, along with plenty of owned and earned media. When early response to "Sketches" proved strong, Unilever moved within days from distributing it in four countries to 25 and boosted paid advertising behind it via YouTube, Facebook Twitter and paid search, said Fernando Machado, global VP of Dove.

A first-day appearance on "Today" and two stories in The Huffington Post on the same day helped fuel an explosion that saw "Sketches" generate 4.3 billion PR impressions in less than a month.

But does it sell soap? IRI data show Dove's U.S. sales up 1% in the four weeks ended May 19, right after the April 14 "Sketches" release. That compares with a 3% rise to $1.5 billion for the full year.

"On something like this that's about long-term Dove love, I would be much more interested in brand-health measures than short-term sales," said Mr. Miles, and those indicators look good. "We have plenty of product communications directed at those short-term sales."

Nor is he concerned about inevitable blowback in social media. "If you want to be a brand that has a point of view and strongly held purpose, you have to expect that not everyone will agree with you," Mr. Miles said.

"If you look at Axe, I would argue that young men, like women, do suffer from lack of self-esteem or confidence. The Axe campaigns are tongue-in-cheek, designed to give them a boost of confidence in a different way." Unilever tests Axe ads both with women and men, he added. "They're enjoyed by both."

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