Never too late to bring a change, and Glow & Lovely will anchor the revolution: Experts

IMPACT Creative Talks: On the virtual panel, ad industry experts shared their views on how brands should change their communication around beauty standards and colourism

e4m by exchange4media Staff
Updated: Jul 16, 2020 12:46 PM

On Wednesday’s Creative Talks virtual session, industry experts deliberated on the topic: Is Glow the new Fair? This was a hot button topic due to the recent debate on racial discrimination and colourism across the world after the shooting of a black man by a police officer in the US. Beauty brands have been criticized time and again for linking dark skin with shame and disappointment in India. So, will a change in the name from ‘fair’ to ‘glow’ help shatter age-old perceptions about beauty overnight? Is it time for brands to do much more and bring about a real change?

On the virtual panel were ad industry leaders such as KV Sridhar, Global CCO, Nihilent-Hypercollective (who has conceptualized Fair & Lovely ads in the past); Ram Subramanian, Founder & Director, Handloom Picture Company (had made a video in 2017 saying that Fair and Lovely must be shut down); Subhash Kamath, CEO & Managing Partner, BBH India (Vice-Chairman of ASCI); Ronita Mitra, Chief Strategist, Brand Eagle Consulting; and Ramesh Jude Thomas, President & Chief Knowledge Officer, EQUiTor. The virtual session was moderated by Neeta Nair, Assistant Editor, IMPACT Magazine.

Starting off the conversation, Subramanian shared, “One of the reasons why I made the video in 2017 and went after Fair & Lovely was the fact that it was very personal to me. I have seen what the cream does to people. If you look at it rationally, advertisers are catering to insecurities. Every product does that. But I felt Fair & Lovely crossed the line. Which is why I made that film and felt that this cream should go. I am very happy that they are looking at this change of name.”

Sridhar, speaking about the communication on Fair & Lovely in its prior days, said, “There are two aspects. One is legal and second is ethical. So a lot of people may have issues about ethics; about why the brand is called ‘Glow & Lovely’ and why it is advertised the way it is. In our democratic country, if we are allowed to manufacture any product, then you should allow them to advertise and explain the benefits of the product to the people. If you don’t do that then there is no industry. As far as the product is concerned, Fair & Lovely technically promised to bring back your skin colour to your original tone. You can’t make anyone lighter with it. It started off as a pharmaceutical cream for black patches and different patches for babies when they have deficiencies. Because it worked so well, they started commercialization. There are paradoxes and you have to balance that. The biggest shift in communication that changed the conversation was from a girl getting married to finding her own talent and path. Another ad was a girl, instead of a son, looking after her parents.”

But even if the brand has to sell the product, should it be reinforcing stereotypes that fair skin is better? Mitra remarked, “I don’t think we can just look at skin colour in isolation. There are a lot of synonymous with cultural codes like the caste system, social-economic classes, or gender. So, I think we just need to be careful and conscious about the fact that it is not just about looking at skin colour at a very superficial level, it is addressing many deep-rooted cultural codes in the country. As a brand or anybody in a position of power and influence, be it brands, media, TV serials, movies, you can either continue to perpetrate these aggressive belief systems or you can change public perception. Media has this myopic vision and stance of staying on the right side of public opinion and not wanting to rock the boat. Secondly, also there are short term business gains. Actually, if you change public opinion, in the long term, it will be profitable. However, it is always the pressure of business deals and shareholders that end up driving these decisions.”

Thomas commented, “If you look at it from a value standpoint, the first thing is how valuable Fair & Lovely is to HUL and to the category. As on date, HUL has about 40 brands give or take. There are only four that have more than Rs 3,000 crores and Fair & Lovely is one of them at Rs 4100 crores. Secondly, if you look at growth and profitability, I understand that on an average, the profitability of something like Fair & Lovely is twice the average of HUL based on Rs 39,000 crores. Lastly, 2020 growth for HUL is 1.9% whereas Fair & Lovely grew at 20%. So, if you look at any of the base metrics we use for our evaluation, it is an incredibly valuable brand for HUL. Therefore, messing with this; the way their hand was forced because of the BLM campaign; is a huge decision. It is like someone messing with the brand name of the iPhone at Apple. It is that big of a brand for them at that size. But is this decision likely to affect the brand? Last week on Friday, the shares fell by 1%. And in 2012, (when there was) the change from white to pink colour, there was a huge push back from the customer. Purely from a value standpoint, this change I suspect isn’t. The premise on which this brand was built was: You are better because you are fairer. And if renewing is going to question that premise, then the entire thing is going to fall apart. Therefore, customer acquisition, another very important metric of evaluation, is going to be highly risked in the consequence of that. Fair & Lovely is 66% of the fairness market; it it is almost the category itself.”

Sharing his perspective, Kamath stated, “Should the product itself be legally or ethically sold in this country which is full of dark people? Skin whitening is a very asked for required consumer need. Just as white people in caucasian countries buy tanning products to become dark there are enough people who are dark who don’t want patches as spots. The biggest skin whitening market in the world is Japan and Korea which is 10 times bigger than India. For them, it is about the blemish-free, patch-free, even-toned glow. One of the biggest skin whitening brands globally is L'Oréal not even Fair & Lovely. But importance should be on how do we market this product, convince and persuade consumers. This is where I think Fair & Lovely has in the past created the biggest conflict in our minds by the narrative that dark skin equalizes to being sad and a looser. The context of the proposition was always deriding dark skin while promoting fair skin. That is where the problem lies.”

BLM is a big conversation today, but the process of change started six years ago and Unilever was very much part of it along with ASCI. A policy was instituted, in 2014 where you can not deride black-skinned people in any way. Fair & Lovely has changed their narrative from then on.

“Is Fair & Glow a superficial change? No, It is never too late to bring about a change. I’m glad they have done it. Would I have been happier if they changed their stance 15 years ago, Yes. Changing a brand takes a lot of thinking. Let’s see what they do with the communication around ‘glow’ going forward,” commented Kamath.

As an advertising creative industry, how do we move on from here? On a parting note, Sridhar said, “One brand and one category can not make a difference. Today, across the world, racism is on an upswing. Education is an answer to everything. Today, whether you are staying in a small village or a big city, your window to the world is the same: your mobile phone. That is going to change peoples' perception. In 5 years, the societal change might happen. Societal and cultural change doesn’t happen overnight. It takes generations together. We need to be patient and contribute to that change.”

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