Home / Opinion / Columns /  New, woke HUL: changing buyer perception on beauty Clichés?

At the end of January, when Sanjiv Mehta, chairman and managing director of Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL), was asked about the spat with Sebamed over the latter’s ad comparing beauty soaps Dove and Lux to detergent brand Rin, he told Mint that the company knows how to protect its turf —“and we will protect it. I’m very emphatic about it."

True to his word, Mehta, who helms India’s largest consumer goods company, seems to have upended Sebamed’s game by changing the narrative around Dove advertising through #StoptheBeautyTest campaign, which takes a higher moral ground on the unjust beauty test Indian women have to undergo during matchmaking. In its new ad film, Dove raises concerns over unfairly judging women based on looks, cleverly extricating itself from the pH debate it got pulled into by Sebamed’s ad claiming that pH levels in HUL’s beauty soaps and detergent brands were similar.

The Dove campaign, meanwhile, comes as a part of HUL’s self-proclaimed overarching effort to evolve the definition of beauty across its portfolio of brands.

After replacing the word “fair" with “glow" in its popular Fair & Lovely face cream, the company, more recently, announced that it will eliminate the usage of ‘normal’ from its brand communication and packaging for beauty and personal care products.

The company will promote equitable and inclusive beauty, and not digitally alter its models’ shape, size, proportion or skin colour for its brand advertising. It also promised to include under-represented groups in its campaigns.

The answer to why HUL is making an attempt to distance itself from beauty stereotypes may lie in the same set of struggles that most legacy companies face when they are challenged by a tectonic shift in the marketing battlefield.

“They are faced with a new reality which they aren’t necessarily too familiar with. Their size also limits their agility to an extent, allowing more nimble brands to capture niche markets and new consumer groups from right under their noses. This is a time when consumers aren’t stereotypical anymore," said Sanjay Sarma, founder of branding and communication advisory SSARMA Consults.

For the consumer, what matters today is how good a company is: “Not just product-level good but a larger good. A moral compass is as important a yardstick as other brand attributes to measure them. And, that’s probably what HUL is attempting to discover," Sarma said.

HUL going “woke" has also been triggered by the advent of social media and its near-ubiquity. “I think it is both a smart as well as a socially responsible move for the company for which it should be commended. I guess this will help them better control the narrative of their brands and keep their images positive among the younger generation of new consumers," said Samit Sinha, managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting Pvt Ltd. At the same time, there is not much risk of diluting the brands’ equities among their more traditional and loyal consumer bases, he added.

However, the key challenge for brands in India remains its lack of homogeneity–not cultural or linguistic–but the enormous socioeconomic disparities. HUL addresses almost all socioeconomic classes in the country, which is both an advantage as well as a problem, said Sinha. While this offers its products a huge market and, therefore, the potential of large volumes, it makes it that much harder for the company to employ a one-size-fits-all marketing strategy for many of its brands.

Sinha said Glow & Lovely (formerly Fair & Lovely) has deep market penetration. “And for a large portion of this market there is no taboo at all in wanting to become fairer. In fact, this has been culturally hard-coded into their psyches over generations and they neither see it as discriminatory nor as racially insensitive. To these consumers replacing the word ‘fair’ with the euphemism ‘glow’ makes little or no sense," he said.

Yet HUL needed to do the right thing and align with the emerging consumer mindset, especially among the millennials and GenZ, who are taken in by socially-conscious, smarter and sustainable new-age brands.

Sarma, however, expects more from HUL than just play on perception. It needs to change and innovate product lines, not just nomenclatures and descriptors, he said, as the consumer is smart enough to notice it.

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