Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Reputation Difficulties for Consumer Products Companies

Unilever, one of the largest consumer products companies in the world, is under attack. A group calling itself Citizens for Commercial Free Children (CCFC), began a campaign in October 2007 claiming that Unilever was hypocrical because it was running Dove and Axe campaigns at the same time. Both are products of Unilever. Dove launched a program called "Onslaught" which urged parents of girls to talk to their children before the fashion and cosmetics industry does.

Dove decided to do something when research discovered that most women had a poor body image and tended to compare themselves poorly against the beauty images held up as desirable by the media. Dove ads show a normal looking woman before and then after make-up that would be applied to a model. The results are remarkable. There also are ads showing women of different sizes and ages, noting that beauty is not limited by body shape or age.

The Axe ads are totally different. In the ads, young men spray themselves with Axe, a body deodorant, and are immediately set upon by beautiful women who cannot constrain themselves after smelling Axe. The web-stie ads are really "over the top", with a group of women called Bom Chicka Wah Wah, that sing about raising ones labido and dropping inhibitions.

The CCFC feels that Unilever is hypocrical because it tries to raise the level of womens' feelings about themselves with Dove, and then sterotypes women in the Axe commercials. Unilver has responded that it has many products, all of which are targeted at different audiences, and the Axe commercials are meant to be a spoof and not to be taken seriously. The CCFC was not satisfied with the response.

This situation highlights a real problem with companies like Unilever that follow a "house of brands" approach to branding. Each product division has responsibility for its own marketing and communications. The name Unilever is never used on any product, and only appears on packages to the extent legally required.

Companies that are organized like Unilever (e.g., Procter & Gamble), face a real dilemma. They can put in place corporate reviews and restrictions on their divisions, or they can allow each division to conduct its own marketing and communications campaign. However, as this case has shown, it is easier than ever for a group to bring the corporation into the fray and demand that there be corporate-wide rather than product-line standards.

I did a case study on this situation with the students in my Corporate Brand and Reputation Management class. They were really torn about what Unilever might be able to do to rectify the situation. They recognized and appreciated the CCFC's complaints, but also thought that Unilever's position was justified. There was a sense among the students that Axe might have gone a bit too far in its web-site ads and that toning these down would help.

Reputation is a difficult thing for companies to manage and still balance the needs to drive sales. It is all the more difficult for consumer products companies that give responsibility for all marketing and communications to their product line management with few limitations. Johnson & Johnson, which is primarily a consumer products company, although it is known as a pharmaceutical company, puts parameters of responsibility on its business units through its "Credo". Perhaps companies like Unilever should begin to instill a sense of shared values throughout all of its business lines, as does J&J. It would still give the product lines freedom. However, as the old saying goes, freedom without some restrictions is chaos.