Soft Soap

In Its Campaign for Real Beauty, Dove Tells Women That They Are Beautiful as They Are. But the Push Is Showing Signs of Aging

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As Dove's widely lauded Campaign for Real Beauty enters its fourth year, the results aren't looking so pretty anymore.

After two years of double-digit sales growth and share gains, Dove's sales have abruptly slowed.
Soft Soap
Illustration: Joe Zeff Design Inc.

Even though overall Dove brand growth has slowed since Pro-Age, Dove sales clearly began slowing even late last year, before the launch.

That raises the question of whether the campaign, hailed as one of the most courageous creative breakthroughs in recent years, went a step too far in embracing aging in all its naked, wrinkled and sagging glory.

Iterations of the effort have won the Grand Prix at Cannes and top Effie honors for Unilever and WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide. The push also generated bankable buzz: TV news and talk-show coverage was so heavy for such things as Dove's zaftig young women in their undies or the "Evolution" extreme-makeover viral that consumers kept telling Unilever they'd seen the ads on TV, even though the company never bought TV time.

But what may have been the most controversial element of the campaign to date -- the February Pro-Age launch featuring Annie Leibovitz photos of grandmothers in the buff in Ladies' Home Journal -- has coincided with a rapid deceleration of Dove sales.

After growing 12.5% in calendar 2005 and 10.1% last year, Dove sales are up only 1.2% to $604 million for the 52 weeks ended Aug. 12, according to Information Resources Inc. Dove also lost 0.3 share points, declining to a cumulative 7.2% share across its many categories. The slowing is more pronounced in the 24 weeks ended Aug. 12, with Unilever's sales flat and share off 0.4 points compared to a year ago.

Falling soap
Most of the softness comes in bar soap, Dove's original and still-biggest category despite years of brand extensions. It's lost 4.3 share points in the 24-week period, though it still dominates the nondeodorant segment with a 49.7% share.

Pro-Age has added $16.5 million in sales across all its categories including body wash, deodorant and hair care, as tallied by IRI, since its launch. That projects to $30 million for a full year and possibly as much as $50 million if untracked channels in Wal-Mart Stores are counted.

But that's come on ad spending of $27.6 million in the first half of 2007 alone, as measured by TNS Media Intelligence.

After the Campaign for Real Beauty launched in September 2004, sales growth returned to double digits. This year, however, that growth has come to a halt.

1. 52 weeks ended Aug. 12
Source: Information Resources Inc.
Unilever probably paid no more than $17 million for the media, given discounts. But given the flattening of overall brand sales, the halo effect on other Dove products appears minimal.

Unilever didn't dispute the numbers, but Stacie Bright, senior communications-marketing manager, accentuated the positive, noting that Dove is growing more than twice as fast as the body-wash category, led by Pro-Age and Dove Cream Oil launches, so it's gaining ground in the category that's gaining ground on bar soap.

"We see it as a very successful story," she said, adding that Dove remains "fully committed to the Campaign for Real Beauty." The brand is preparing to launch its next viral video Oct. 1, she said.

"We're incredibly thrilled," with Dove Pro-Age, Ms. Bright said. "This launch was incredibly ambitious. ... We have definitely met our objectives and exceeded share expectations."

Even though overall Dove brand growth has slowed since Pro-Age, Dove sales clearly began slowing even late last year, before the launch. The brand grew only around 2% vs. the year-ago period from August to February, IRI data show.

That indicates the Campaign for Real Beauty wasn't moving the needle much even before the grandmas started strutting their stuff, including when Unilever launched its "Evolution" viral last October, generating plenty of free media and two Cannes Grand Prix.

Not about the ads
Dove's success all along was probably more about product news than newsworthy advertising, said Ralph Blessing, a former Unilever marketer and now a consultant with Arbor Strategy Group, Chicago.

And the product innovation may have faltered with Pro-Age. "It does have a nice handle," he said, "but I'm not sure what it does for me."

"Dove Pro-Age is a wonderful concept, a high concept. But people don't buy concepts. They buy products," said Suzanne Grayson, a longtime beauty-industry consultant.

She said the concept does appeal to many women, but embracing unvarnished aging when anti-aging products dominate skin care is risky. "What they're saying is that [the brand] is for people who are giving up," Ms. Grayson said.

Expanding category
Clearly, most women aren't. Anti-aging products by Procter & Gamble Co.'s Olay outsold Dove Pro-Age products eightfold in the 24 weeks ended Aug. 12. The Olay Definity line of anti-aging skin creams alone added more sales than all Pro-Age products combined throughout its far-flung categories.
ProAge sales
Sources: Information Resources Inc., TNS Media Intelligence, Ad Age estimates
L'Oreal also has made significant gains with its Age Perfect cream and new Garnier skin-care lineup aimed at younger women.

Indeed, anti-aging products aren't just for older women anymore. "We're seeing accelerated usage of anti-aging products by women at younger ages," said Karen Grant, senior industry analyst for NPD Group at the Health and Beauty America 2007 show last week in New York.

Even if Dove had the products to compete effectively, the Campaign for Real Beauty may have positioned the brand out of anti-aging.

"I don't think they're really promoting more wrinkles," Mr. Blessing said. "But they have let go of women who want the next miracle in a bottle. Now that they've established this view of beauty, they have to be true to it."
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