Unilever's justice marketing demands measurable results—like changing laws and racist perceptions
While many brands have embraced racial justice issues of late, Unilever has gone a step further with initiatives that take concrete, measurable steps to eradicate discrimination. The efforts—which include campaigns to change laws and deep-seated prejudices—aren’t easy or without risk. But they are getting attention.
Leading those efforts is Dove, as the sole brand sponsor of a national campaign to end hair discrimination that’s already led to new laws in seven states and three municipalities. And the brand’s male sibling, Dove Men+Care, has joined with the National Basketball Players Association on a campaign to reverse racist perceptions about Black men. (Scroll down to watch the campaign.)
Smaller Unilever brands also have stepped up with new efforts in the past year. They include SheaMoisture, which Unilever acquired in 2018, putting $1 million into a fund to back businesses headed by women of color as part of a brand re-stage in October, and then another $1 million earlier this month to back businesses headed by men of color as part of a move into men’s personal care products. Caress in June put $1 million into an I Fund Women of Color grant program for female entrepreneurs. And Vaseline in November launched an Equitable Skin Care for All program, in partnership with brand ambassador Regina King and Medscape, to better equip dermatologists and other medical providers to treat skin conditions for people of color.
The efforts are an outgrowth of Unilever CEO Alan Jope’s call for his brands to adopt purpose programs. While much of that work in the U.S. of late has touched on racial justice, the company also has stepped up buying from minority-owned businesses and media companies, and improving the diversity of its advertising globally.
But it’s not always an easy path; the company’s U.S. efforts ended up casting a harsh social-media spotlight on its former Fair & Lovely skincare brand in Asia, whose restage to Glow & Lovely has met criticism too.
Dove’s bumpy journey
Even Dove, which has the most prominent racial justice programs of any Unilever brand, has had to overcome issues of its own. The brand’s long-running Real Beauty campaign has always encouraged women and girls to be proud of their own natural beauty. But the company faced a strong backlash over a Facebook ad in October 2017 which was widely seen as racist. The ad was quickly yanked and Unilever apologized, though the Black model featured in the ad pushed back against the notion that it was racist or that she was a victim.
A month later, Esi Eggleston Bracey, a Black woman and veteran of Procter & Gamble Co. and Coty, became executive VP and chief operating officer of personal care at Unilever North America. A month after that, Unilever acquired Sundial Brands, marketer of SheaMoisture, one of the leading U.S. Black-owned beauty brands.
By early last year, Fabian Garcia took over as president of Unilever North America, meaning the top two Unilever execs in North America are people of color. And the company’s U.S. diversity numbers turned out to be considerably better than many competitors when social-media pressure led it to release them in June. While the company revealed that only 8% of U.S. corporate employees identify as Black, 30% identify as people of color. And among managers, those numbers are higher, with 17% identifying as Black and 42% as people of color.
Taking on hair discrimination
Bracey declined to comment on what happened at Unilever before she got there, but programs like those of Dove, SheaMoisture, Caress and Vaseline all have begun since she arrived.
“For a long time, Dove’s life work has been to be a champion for beauty inclusivity,” Bracey says. “Dove talks about this as making beauty accessible for each and every person. As we zeroed in on the Black community, what we saw very strongly was hair inequality. We felt compelled to do something about it.”
High-profile discrimination incidents kept popping up nationwide, such as an 11-year-old Louisiana girl sent home from school over her hair extensions and a New Jersey high school wrestler forced to cut his dreadlocks to compete, both in 2018.
Dove already had started to address the issue of “hair shaming” and discrimination in 2016 with a campaign. And in light of those incidents, when Bracey spoke to a National Organization of Black Law Enforcement officers gathering in early 2019, she said she thought the brand could make an impact on hair discrimination. Soon afterward Dove joined with groups that include Color of Change, the National Urban League and the Western Center on Law and Poverty to form the Crown Coalition (for Creating a Respectful Open Workplace for Natural hair) soon afterward.
By July 2019, California, led by Sen. Holly Mitchell, passed the first Crown Act against hair discrimination. Now six more states—New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Colorado, Washington and Maryland—plus municipalities including Cincinnati, New Orleans and Montgomery County, Maryland, have followed. And while a Crown Act passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last year didn’t advance in the Senate, the group plans to try again in the new Congress.
Unilever last year pledged $5 million over five years to back Crown Coalition efforts, which have expanded to include broader racial justice issues.
Beyond the legislation, which essentially extends Fair Employment and Housing Act protections to hair styles, the campaign also helps raise awareness about discrimination against people who wear natural hair styles and gives people confidence to express themselves.
“That’s why we do this work,” Bracey says. “It comes to me in unusual ways, from people not even knowing I’m associated [with the Crown Coalition], saying things like ‘I’m going to go and get my locks today, because I know I have the law on my side.’”
Fighting racism against men
Meanwhile Dove Men+Care, which previously focused mainly on advocating for paternity leave policies, has changed tack toward battling racist perceptions of Black men. And while it doesn’t have legislation to back, this effort also aims for measurable change.
Dove Men+Care joined with the National Basketball Players Association last year to fund a survey of 3,000 people to quantify racist perceptions and attitudes; then launched a series of videos from Joy Collective to begin combatting those perceptions. The plan, says Bracey, is to follow up with future research to measure whether things improve.
The survey found 51% of Black men have been called a racial slur. It also found Black men are 2.5 times more likely than white men to be described as criminal and twice as likely to be described as threatening and intimidating by white men. Black men were also 75% less likely to be seen as confident, 50% less likely to be seen as smart and 40% less likely to be seen as successful.
Dove Men+Care began talking to the NBPA to embrace the issue because the protests this summer “were not just an issue with police,” Bracey says. “It’s in our culture because of centuries of racism and oppression.”
The Dove-NBPA Commit to C.A.R.E. (Care About Racial Equity) Now video series has run online and TV since October, tapping NBA players who include Jaylen Brown, Chris Paul, Danny Green and Donovan Mitchell to counter those negative stereotypes. Dove Men+Care also joined the NBPA to host a Black Men’s Summit last week on Facebook and YouTube.
For its part, SheaMoisture, which in the past marketed mainly to women, is also reaching out to Black men with a new product line launched this month in Walmart, Target and other stores; and a #MyStoryMyPower video series where Black men tell their stories. The launch includes a new $1 million commitment from Unilever to fund businesses started by Black men, which opens for applications in March.
A ‘Fair’ fight
Of course, Unilever doesn’t only operate in the U.S., and one of its global brands didn’t mesh well with its outspoken stance on racial justice here. The company last June faced a social-media backlash against the role its large Fair & Lovely brand has had in India and elsewhere in Asia portraying people with fairer skin as superior.
So Unilever in June followed others, such as Neutrogena and L’Oréal’s Garnier, in removing the word “Fair” or “Fairness” from products and marketing—something a new law in India was already set to require. But the fix—changing the name to Glow & Lovely—has faced continued criticism in social media for not going far enough.
Unilever defends Glow & Lovely as an alternative to more dangerous skin-lightening products people have turned to historically in the countries where it’s sold, including products containing mercury bleach. And the company says the brand isn’t about skin lightening. Marketing instead focuses on other areas of skin health.
“We want Fair & Lovely to become a brand that celebrates glowing and radiant skin, regardless of skin tone,” said Sunny Jain, president of Unilever Personal Care, in a June statement. He vowed to “evolve our advertising to feature women of different skin tones,” though the initial August advertising announcing the Glow & Lovely name change featured a light-skinned Indian actress. Previously in 2019, the former Fair & Lovely stopped using before-and-after impressions and shade guides that could “indicate a transformation” in ads, and began focusing on “glow, even tone, skin clarity and radiance.”
Even so, the contrast with Unilever U.S. advertising for brands like Dove, SheaMoisture and Vaseline can be stark. But Unilever also last month launched a global initiative to “help build a more inclusive society” that includes a pledge to increase the number of ads featuring people from diverse groups, both on screen and behind the camera—along with spending more than $2 billion with diverse suppliers, including small businesses owned by women and under-represented racial and ethnic groups.