Case Summary and Discussion: Dove

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Content Summary

J. Deighton’s (2008) case study “Dove: Evolution of a Brand” includes a brief history of Unilever, it’s Dove brand and the marketing campaign that drove Dove to a position of dominance in its industry in 2007.  The study also addresses the question of whether or not Dove’s marketing strategy was excessively risky, as has been suggested by commentators.  The purpose of the study is to provide a reader with enough context to have a meaningful and informed discussion about Dove’s unorthodox marketing decisions.

Unilever is the corporation that owns the Dove brand as well as ten other billion-dollar brand names that are well-recognized in the food, home, and personal care markets.  The company began in 1930 and has since grown to dominate its chosen sectors on a global scale.  At the end of the 20th century, Unilever was faced with the problem of competing for brand names under their own umbrella around the world, rather than unified brand names that could be recognized from region to region.  The Dove marketing campaign was only one of many efforts to form “master brands” from Unilever’s diverse holdings.

The Dove brand began in 1957 with a single product, the beauty bar.  It marketed its moisturizing properties and emphasized a high cream content.  The basic claim that Dove did not dry out skin remained the core marketing concept until February of 2000 when Dove was chosen as the Unilever masterbrand for hygiene and personal care products of all kinds.  The marketing strategy of functionality had to change when Dove brought a wider variety of new products under its umbrella because that would have been a vastly complex and confusing marketing campaign.  It would have undermined the purpose of the master brand.  Instead, Unilever decided to pursue a point-of-view strategy that would align Dove with a hygiene and personal care product regardless of its function.  In 2002, “The Campaign for Real Beauty” was chosen.

This marketing concept was developed through the multi-step, multi-disciplinary process.  Psychologists were consulted to formulate hypotheses about what universal values were most important to Dove’s target customers, women.  Surveys were then conducted around the world to verify the hypotheses and then a test-run was conducted in which the public could respond in real-time to the use of “real” women in their underwear, showing off healthy skin, on advertisements.

The overall strategy of this marketing campaign was to invalidate the beauty myth and simply claim that Dove brought out the real and natural beauty of a person.  Ordinary women and girls were used on ads, interviewed about their self-esteem, and in one case put through a filmed beautification process to show the artificial transformation from plain to glamorous.  This strategy created tension within the marketing team as some felt that not claiming to create impossible beauty would make Dove appear inferior to products that did make that claim.  Unilever went even further by creating an amateur ad contest where women could submit their own take on the Dove strategy, contributing to the overall concept.

Despite the internal disputes, “The Campaign for Real Beauty” had an impact that went far beyond advertising.  By addressing the issue of low self-esteem, and during the 2005 Superbowl no less, Unilever raised Dove to the level of a crusade against false impressions of beauty and for the physical and mental health of women and girls everywhere.  A highly interactive public relations campaign further reinforced “The Campaign for Real Beauty” and helped make it a viral sensation by making it sensitive to the concerns of the consumers.  A survey about the definition of beauty served as the foundation of this public relations strategy; the survey confirmed that most women considered the standard of beauty to be out of reach.  When public dissent rose up against the campaign, Unilever’s public relations strategy was to engage and fuel that discussion, drawing still more attention to its brand.  Perhaps most significant of all its maneuvers during the spread of “The Campaign for Real Beauty” was the choice to create the Dove Self-Esteem Fund, a global organization that has been dedicated to redefining beauty in the real world and improving the self-esteem of young girls.

As part of this marketing campaign, Unilever adopted a new brand management method that deviated from the previous strategy of isolating each individual brand as its own independent unit.  The new method was designed to reinforce the unity of the master brands without losing local precision.  Every brand under Unilever, Dove included, was given a Brand Development team that managed the brand concept around the globe and was familiar with a GBS marketing strategy.  The Brand Management teams were localized rather than centralized and were responsible for fulfilling the concept established by the Brand Development team, in whatever region they occupied.

The result of all this change in organization and change in marketing was that Dove, in 2006, was a top 10 brand in terms of percentage growth over the previous three years.  That growth is attributable both to its selection as a master brand and all the products placed under its name as well as the revolutionary marketing campaign.  Though it is unclear how much of the growth was direct because of the campaign, there was no question that the unconventional advertising strategy had a profound and lasting impact on the world of marketing, the health and beauty sector, and the public forum in general.

Discussion question

The question of risk in the Dove marketing strategy has been raised and discussed extensively since the campaign first began.  There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that it simply shocked and confused people.  In his article for Slate, S. Stevenson (2005) remarked, “Here I was, staring at a ‘big-boned’ woman in her underwear, but this wasn’t an Adam Sandler movie, and I wasn’t supposed to laugh.  It felt almost revolutionary.”  The sudden appearance of entirely normal women in their underwear, looking healthy and happy to be so exposed, completely undermined the long-held concept of what a model should look like.  Of course, being that unsettled would make people argumentative.

After he raised that point, it was almost ironic for Stevenson (2005) to go on and criticize Dove for being moralistic and exploitative of women's desire to feel good about themselves.  His prediction was that Dove would go down in flames as the “brand for fat girls”.  In the end, his perspective was that unattainable beauty was the best marketing strategy and there is no point in trying to change that.  G. McCracken’s (2005) article was more fundamental in its criticism.  His criticisms were that Unilever had simply tossed aside the reins on Dove’s marketing campaign and let it run wild.  His argument was that the complete lack of discipline in the global community, particularly the internet, would spell doom for any marketing strategy surrendered to that mob.

While these criticisms raise valid points, they would not be considered authoritative commentators if they raised poor points, they fail to see the big picture.  Dove’s marketing campaign is not at risk because it is not simply lounging on the good vibrations of feel-good advertising and Unilever has not cast aside control of its marketing.  The expert consultants and careful planning that went into the campaign demonstrated a profound desire for ‘real beauty’ in the consumers.  Unilever has also made a significant effort to cultivate that desire, to make it okay for girls and women to be comfortable with themselves.  This strategy makes them the most approachable brand, rather than a judgmental brand that promises changes it will never make.  Of course, some consumers will steer towards more glamorous brands, but there are significantly more ‘normal’ women in the world who just want to feel good about being normal than there are models.

Of course, letting the public pick at and contribute to a marketing campaign removes some of the control from the strategists.  But it also ensures that it will be discussed in circles that it may not have been as a conventional marketing strategy.  Reality TV proves that disruption attracts attention even when it lacks substance and there is a powerful substance in the Dove campaign that makes it almost subversive.  A person might mock and criticize it at first, possibly in a knee-jerk reaction like Stevenson’s, but then the ‘real beauty’ message will sink in, turning viral in a consumer’s mind the way it did on the internet.  Of course, there is a risk, but the reward is far greater as Dove has created a self-propagating marketing campaign that continues to spread and survive away from the primary advertisements. 


Deighton, J. (2008, March 25). Dove: Evolution of a brand [Class Handout]. Harvard Business School.

McCracken, G. (2005, October 27). Is marketing now cheap, fast and out of control? CultureBy. Retrieved from 

Stevenson, S. (2005, August 1). When tush comes to Dove. Slate. Retrieved from