“Ladders and Snakes” – The Risk with Values-based Communication

Onslaught of feedback on Dove’s new movie
Dove’s new You Tube movie, "Onslaught", has stirred up another storm of debate. Onslaught hits out at the barrage of images from the beauty industry that
tell girls they need to look good, get slim etc. It ends by
imploring parents to "Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry
.This film comes hot on the heels of "Evolution", which got 15 million views on You Tube and won the top prize at the Cannes Advertising Festival.  [More on Evolution here]

Has Onslaught gone a step too far? Evolution attacked the Photoshop-ed manipulation of models to make them look perfect, saying "be beautiful, but in your own way". The new film seems to say "Don’t listen to anyone who tells you to change the way you look". But then, Dove sells products that help you look slimmer and more beautiful. Uh?

PSFK highlights that parent company Unilever’s Lynx/Axe and Lux brands use more stereotypical sexy imagery to sell, and asks if this is not hypocritical. There is even a piss-take advert that says: "Talk to your daughter before Unilever does"! However, consumers are not marketing directors and most are unlikely to say "Oh no, I’m not buying Dove. I have a real issue with their portfolio strategy of having brands with a social mission, and others that are using sex to sell."

The bigger issue – "values-based" communication
But beyond the Onslaught film itself, the bigger issue that interests me is the whole idea of "values-based" communication. Does investing in marketing that works by "laddering up" to a higher order values level pay back in extra sales? Or is it an expensive "brand ego trip"? Should you be following in Dove’s steps, or steering clear?

Well, it sure gets impact and exposure. In New York a couple of weeks ago the Dove Onslaught movie made the breakfast news on national TV. And the hits on You Tube are close to a million. And for some people, this marketing will change the way they feel about Dove. However, there is then a jump that has to be made for these feelings to translate into product preference. The impact on the brand is in-direct.

Ladders and snakes
This is a great quote from a marketing director I worked with at Unilever. The risk with climbing a brand ladder is that you can go too high, hit a ladder and slide down. Tom Fishburne has this bit of genius that illustrates the risks:


A better bet could be communication with a more obvious, direct link back to the product. In other words, leave the ladder in the garage, and get the "sausage" (product) and "sizzle" (emotional values) working together.

Looking back at the Dove case in the brand vision book, its fascinating to see that this is the conclusion reached by Dove’s agency, Ogilvy, when the Campaign for Real Beauty was created a few years ago. This campaign was based on a "beauty theory", a bit like a brand manifesto. They developed three different "brand anthem" campaigns that tried to get women to stop judging themselves so harshly (‘Beauty Has A Million Faces One Of Them Is Yours’, ‘Give Your Beauty Wings’ and ‘Let’s Make Peace With Beauty’). However, as the planner from Ogilvy agency commented :

"Unfortunately, women were not impressed. They found our ideas patronising. The top-down approach seemed to lead to rather didactic, theoretical and distant work. So we decided instead to work bottom-up – product first, wrapped in beauty theory."

I love that last line: "Products wrapped in beauty theory". Tell a product story, but in an impactful, emotionally engaging way. This led to the launch of Firming Cream, with the now famous advert of  real ladies in their undies. It was fresh. It was honest. And it plugged a product: "As tested on real curves". "Real-ness" and "honesty" was the brand’s personality, but not the idea itself.

Time will tell if the Onslaught approach works. And hats off to the Dove team for being courageous and for innovating
with media. The pay to shoot their You Tube films, but the
media is then free.

But my money would go on emotionally engaging communication that sells. More like the Firming Cream stuff, and less like Onslaught. If you disagree and decide to cilmb the ladder to values land, then a few tips: i) be brave, ii) get your house in order and have some substance: Dove invests real time and effort in their Self-Esteem fund., iii) be ready for the back-lash and the cynics.

To end, an earlier Dove film about the Self-Esteem Fund that is still my personal fave. This one has a health warning. As the dad of 3 girls, I have to own up and say this bloody thing brought tears to my eyes when it was presented by Unilever’s CMO, Simon Clift!