Analysis: Is it time for Unilever to rethink brand names such as Fair & Lovely?

Unilever has been taking heat from netizens for demanding racial justice while it continues to carry and promote skin lightening products such as Fair & Lovely, which was first introduced in India in 1975.

In an Instagram post on 4 June, Unilever said it is taking action to create systemic change to address institutionalised racism and social injustice. As such, the FMCG giant has pledged more than US$1 million to date to organisations and activists working for social justice and racial equality. These commitments come from Unilever and its brands such as SheaMoisture, AXE, TAZO, Suave, Seventh Generation and Degree. In addition, in the same post, Unilever also added that it will continue to increase its work with and investment in diverse suppliers, as well as ensure the diversity of its workforce fully reflects the communities it serves and uphold a zero-tolerance policy on intolerance - both among Unilever employees and the suppliers, customers and partners.

However, netizens were quick to clap back at Unilever for its contradicting remarks. In a string of comments on its Instagram post, netizens around the world were calling out Unilever for owning a “racist” product, and to drop the brand and issue an apology for “promoting colourism and racism in the South Asian culture for years”.  Others were also calling to the company asking it to “put [its] money where [its] mouth is” and stop manufacturing fairness creams and selling it in markets such as India.  

According to an Economic Times in India published in October last year, the Beauty and Personal Care segment for Unilever grew 5.2% YoY to Rs 4,543 crore (approx US$600m) and “Fair & Lovely soap continues to gain traction”. A British magazine The News Statesman reported that as of 2016, Fair & Lovely owned a 50% share of the market in the fairness cream industry, which is worth around US$450m. Meanwhile, according to Unilever, Fair & Lovely is the first cream in the world to have used a vitamin which is known to "brighten skin, reduce inflammation and hyper-pigmentation and smoothen overall skin texture". Additionally, the brand claims to have a strong emotional connection with consumers, and "prides on giving women the confidence of beauty and empowering them to fulfil their dreams".

Skin colour is an issue that has plagued the region for decades. Taking this into consideration, most recently, J&J said it will no longer produce or ship its Clean & Clear Fairness line of products in Asia and the Middle East. In a New York Times article, J&J said there have been conversations over the past weeks that some of its "dark spot reducer products represent fairness or white as better than your own unique skin tone", and that it was never the company's intention to do so. 

Voicing his opinion on the matter, Ambrish Chaudhry, managing strategy director, Superunion Singapore said that while it might be easy to criticise the likes of Unilever, it is important to remember that the company has been walking the talk on purpose-led brands for some time now.

“Unilever firmly believes that as a company it can be a force for good and have come out strongly about the business benefits of brands that are driven by purpose," he said.

This isn’t an opportunistic purpose land grab. If one goes back to the origin of the company, Lord Lever was always an exponent of the ‘do good do well’ philosophy, he explained, adding, "With brands such as Dove, Ben & Jerry and Lifebuoy (which helps millions of less privileged children stay healthy) it’s probably unfair to paint them with the ‘purposeful when convenient’ brush."

At the same time, it brings one to the tricky topic of the Fair & Lovely brand. Some of the arguments against the existence of the brand miss some subtle nuances, Chaudhry explained, adding that the brand is seen more from the lens of legacy than what it is today. He explained that the portrayal of the Fair & Lovely protagonists for example, have transformed significantly to a confident, assertive woman who is ready to live life on her own terms. "The brand, along with many others, is catering to a need that exists in society, granted that it probably helped stoke it,” he said, but asking for the brand to retire may be counter-productive as the vacuum will probably be filled by a less scrupulous corporate entity.

Taking the brand away will not take the behaviour away.

Meanwhile, Unilever on its website says that the brand has always positioned itself as a supporter of women's choices and positive change. In the 80’s, when society expected women to marry mostly via arranged marriages, Fair & Lovely gave them hope that women could marry by choice. In the 90s, when women desired not just marriage but also an equal partnership, Fair & Lovely inspired them to believe that this was possible. In the 2000s, when society believed that a woman’s place was at home, Fair & Lovely encouraged her to choose her own career.

"And today, when despite much progress, women still don’t get equal opportunities and society continues to impose barriers for women, Fair & Lovely will give women the confidence to overcome their own hesitations & fears to achieve their true potential. Fair & Lovely wants to create a positive change in the society in its own small way – by helping women get the confidence to pursue their dreams and ambitions. Fair & Lovely will do this by not just inspiring women but also enabling them by giving opportunities like higher education, career and entrepreneurship via the Fair & Lovely Foundation," it says on its website.

Chaudhry added the expectation from Unilever should be to use the platform that the brand provides as a catalyst to pivot the customer away from seeking fairness to being more comfortable in their own glow.

The brand should "use its humongous budgets to drive a message of positive reinforcement" and of course, reconsider its brand name.

Zayn Khan, CEO of Dragon Rouge SEA said the issue of fairness and whitening is not just a South Asian one but rather an Asian one as it drives a huge category in both North and Southeast Asia. According to Khan, it takes time for cultural norms to shift, and these are evident in signs where vocabulary in the category has evolved from “fairness” and “whiteness” to “radiance”, “glow”, “inner beauty” and “natural beauty”.

“Are Asian women ready to entirely abandon the notion that being more fair makes you more attractive and more affluent-looking? Definitely not. However, there are encouraging signs amongst Millennial Asians that character, realness and health are more important factors in self-expression than skin tone,” he explained. He was quick to add:

The West is ahead in regard; it will just take Asia longer to get there.

“I believe the major brands in this category have a role to play (or even a duty) to advance the conversation and evolve the narrative in the right direction,” Khan said.

With global spending on skin lightening products projected to triple to more than US$30 billion by 2024, this is another battle between ethics and economics, added Graham Hitchmough, chief operating officer, Bonsey Design Singapore.

On the one hand, the numbers involved clearly point to a consumer demand that companies such as Unilever, Johnson & Johnson and Beiersdorf are simply fulfilling.  However, in many cases, the source of that demand can be traced back to deep-seated cultural perceptions which unjustly stigmatise darker skin tones, he added.  While it may not be fair to pass the entire burden of unpicking these reprehensible perceptions to the manufacturers of skincare products, Hitchmough added that these companies still "do bear a responsibility to review the appropriateness of profiting from such products in the context of a far more open and searching discourse on perceptions of race, ethnicity and skin colour".

“Reviewing the name of the product and its associations and ensuring that any marketing communication not only avoids contentious inferences about the desirability of one skin tone over another but actually educates that there is no basis for such beliefs is the bare minimum that should be expected,” he explained, adding that this should be taken as an opportunity to more fundamentally review the role of the brand both among its audience and within society to see if it can deliver its value to consumers in new ways – to evolve rather than to disappear.

(Read also: Colgate looks to rename Darlie)

Similar to Unilever’s Fair & Lovely product, Beiersdorf too carries a Nivea Natural Fairness cream that aims to “enhance the skin’s natural radiance” and to “give the skin even-toned fairness”. Nivea also got into its fair share of drama around its fairness ads. In Singapore in 2015, women’s rights group AWARE Singapore slammed Nivea for its ad depicting a modern day woman caught in awkward social situations due to her dark underarms. “Apparently having the ‘wrong’ colour of armpit makes you unfit to interact with other human beings. This is supposedly humour – but is promoting shame and insecurity about our bodies a laughing matter?” AWARE said then then in a Facebook post.

Share your thoughts with us journos in the newsroom and be part of our Instagram community to catch the behind the scenes action, industry updates and creative inspiration!