Consumers Will Connect the Dots Between Brands

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

Yes, critics are succeeding in painting Unilever as the paragon of hypocrisy for running self-esteem boosting work for Dove while portraying young women as oversexed boy toys in Axe spots. But that doesn't mean the company should give up the Dove work.

What it does mean is that Unilever and other large companies must realize that the days of the populace never making the connections between brands with conflicting messages are gone. In fact, it's surprising that it took this long for a backlash against Dove's "Onslaught" viral -- the latest offshoot of the brilliant "Campaign for Real Beauty" effort -- to begin. It isn't exactly a state secret that Unilever owns both Dove and Axe.

Gadflies and consumer activists have always liked punching holes in marketers' claims to be thinking of a greater good rather than the bottom line. The difference these days, of course, is that blogs, YouTube, Facebook and other internet developments make it much more likely regular consumers will see the work of activists or stumble upon the connections themselves. After all, the Dove team relied on precisely the same technology to get so much mileage out of its "Evolution" and "Onslaught" spots.

Put simply, companies will have to take a little more care with the messaging across their brand portfolios. Perhaps a company shouldn't be crowing about virtues in the communications for one brand if it's preaching vices for another. Car companies run into this problem when they talk up their environmental records and hybrid technology for some cars while rolling bigger and badder gas guzzlers off the assembly line. And no amount of spin is going to erase the fact that Unilever is being hypocritical with its Dove work.

But that shouldn't overshadow the fact that people trained their sights on Unilever precisely because its Dove work had become so popular. And that happened because the company and its agency took the risk of staking the campaign to a big idea -- something beyond the usual "Our skin-care product smells pretty and moistens your skin." Industry watchers have said consumers want to buy into brands they can feel good about, and the Dove team tapped into that. It was rewarded handsomely for that risk -- in accolades, ad awards and, most important, a sales boost.

Perhaps Unilever should take another risk -- try selling deodorant to boys without objectifying the girls it's trying to sell Dove to.
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