Quiz: You’re the Head of PR for Unilever

You’re the head of public relations for Unilever. Time for a quiz. But first, a background to our case study.

Your company’s Dove Evolution campaign was a great success (see video) with more than 12 million views. Meanwhile you’ve got this other lil’ brand called Axe, that happens to be using viral video to relentlessly position itself as the secret ingredient to being a chick magnet. Dove’s Evolution successor is called “Onslaught” and Axe is running with Bom Chicka Wah Wah.

dove onslaughtaxe chicka wah wah

Fortunately your employer read enough of Al Ries to know that megabranding is a really, really bad idea. So the brands live in separate worlds for separate targets, not ever united with the Unilever brand (at least for consumer marketing). Until


A mashup video titled “A Message from Unilever” appears on YouTube on October 19, unilever dove axe mashupand parodies the marketing contradiction by interlacing footage from Dove’s ads with some of the sexy and naughty clips from Axe. Ouch. Then this issue surfaces in a less visceral but perhaps more widely distributed medium as old as time itself... the newspaper.

In an op-ed titled “A Company’s Ugly Contradiction” in The Boston Globe November 5 contributor Michelle Gillett said, “Viewers are struggling to make sense of how Dove can promise to educate girls on a wider definition of beauty while other Unilever ads [for Axe] exhort boys to make ‘nice girls naughty.’ … Unilever is in the business of selling products, not values, and that means we, the consumers, are being manipulated, no matter how socially responsible an ad seems.”

Seems that YouTube video was posted by Rye Clifton, who a senior strategic planner at Interpublic Group of Cos.’ Martin Agency in Richmond, Va. In his defense, Clifton said it “was his own idea and done on his own time. But it’s hard to overlook something AdAge uncovered: Martin recently parted ways with Unilever’s Burt’s Bees. Hmmmm. Smoking gun?

A little bummed about losing the account, Clifton? No sweat. We’ve all been there. We just didn’t have YouTube at the time, so we resigned our frustration to internal e-mails busting on how the client “didn’t get it” and the next agency is doomed to relive the torture we tolerated. Then again, those e-mails did accidentally get forwarded to the client, which is almost as awkward as getting exposed for this.

See this AdAge article “Dove Viral Draws Heat from Critics” for the “blow by blow.” The article should really be titled, “Critics Identify Unilever’s Contradictions of Marketing from Dove to Axe.”

So now… You’re Unilever’s Chief of what do you do?

  1. Get in front of the issue- declare — with transparency — that the brands are run like separate companies with separate targets and values? And, yeah, Unilever has a few values of its own. After press briefing take Axe Product Director into the janitor closet and punch him in the crotch.
  2. Hope it goes away. Tell leadership you’re “on top of it,” then play Minesweeper in your closed office.
  3. Secretly pay bloggers to come to your defense? (thint- his is not the right answer).
  4. Decide that you can’t, as one company, have a soap brand (Dove) launching a public-service like campaign about daughters and natural beauty, while another brand exploits sex to sell cologne (Axe).
  5. Find someone else to throw under the bus. After all, this contradiction is not unique to Unilever (I know at least one company that sells baby products and birth control).

whack a flackOh the poor flack… er… public relations professional. Mass media “issues management” was hard enough in the 90s. Now the consumer has a visceral, persuasive and powerful new trick (online video) to expose corporate contradictions and shape public opinion. And our PR agencies certainly can’t afford to take them all out to lunch.

6 Replies to “Quiz: You’re the Head of PR for Unilever”

  1. The first thing you do is nothing. Wait and see if anyone else starts baning the drum, or if the whole thing goes away. It doesn’t seem like some sort of huge backlash where you need to go on the offensive.

    Now if the affair continues, and “the world demands answers” you come out with the old line about how the campaigns have been misunderstood and how much you agree with their stance, great thoughts however misguided, blah blah blah. You only need to do this sort of thing if really necessary.

    They’re really not that far off in their marketing. The campaigns speak to their target audiences well.

  2. See, you’re missing the fact that behind the “Dove” philosphy is the hope that all these little girls will grow up with such a positive body image that they will not be intimidated by the hot dude who wears Axe and will be proud to wear a bikini and frantically chase him down the street, now matter how degrading you and I might view it as. Or how misguided that positive body image is.

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