April 10th, 2008

Can Dove Promote a Cause and Sell Soap?

By Suzanne Vranica
The Wall Street Journal

Web Site Is Devoted To 'Real Beauty'... And Product Placement

Women turn to all sorts of places for advice and stimulating conversation, from “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to their next-door neighbors. But are they ready to take their life cues from a soap company?

Dove is betting several million dollars that the answer is yes. The hair- and skin-products maker owned by Unilever is trying to create a new online community for women that offers entertainment, blogs, advice and advertising.

In 2004, Dove made headlines when it took a stand against the convention among beauty companies of relying on over-the-top-beautiful and thin models in their advertising. Instead, Dove decided to use ordinary-looking—in some cases heavyset—women in its ads for shampoos and beauty products. The ad and public-relations effort, called “Campaign for Real Beauty,” created free publicity for the company and added to the debate about the best way to promote self-esteem in younger girls.

The new digital channel is intended to strengthen the link between that cause and Dove’s line of products. “How do you recognize, in a graceful way, the conversation for ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ and the products?” says J.P. Maheu, chief digital officer at Ogilvy North America, the WPP Group firm that helped create the new Dove site.

The big question for Dove is whether consumers will turn to the company for information and advice when Dove is so clearly trying to sell them specific products.

The new Dove site, which rolled out Wednesday at Dove.msn.com, offers the company’s original programming, such as its recently launched miniseries “Fresh Takes.” In that series, singer Alicia Keys headlines in three-minute episodes that follow the life of three young women. The minishow has been running online and on television during MTV’s “The Hills.” The new Dove site also offers things such as advice from a doctor on skin care and even chitchat about how beauty is portrayed in today’s popular culture.

Many sections of the site have some type of Dove ad message surrounding the content. One pitch says: “You are five days from beautiful hair. Try Dove hair care free.” The site will be rolled out world-wide over the next few months. With the rollout, Dove joins a stream of big-name brands that are starting online communities where they can package entertainment with subtle and not-so-subtle product pitches.

While Dove has received a blizzard of free publicity for the “Campaign for Real Beauty,” the marketing impact has been somewhat blunted by the fact that the social cause hasn’t been linked directly to specific Dove products. While TV segments about the cause have appeared on popular shows such as “The View,” “Entertainment Tonight,” “Ellen” and the “Today Show,” many of those segments didn’t incorporate actual Dove items.

Even some of the brand’s other successful ad pitches haven’t been directly linked to a specific soap or hair-care product. Tens of millions of people viewed Dove’s “Evolution” online video on YouTube and other online video-sharing sites, yet the video wasn’t surrounded by any product mentions. The online video, which also took aim at the definition of beauty, showed an average-looking woman being transformed into a billboard supermodel with the help of lots of makeup, lighting and airbrushing. “No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted,” reads the screen.

“It’s challenging when you put things out on YouTube to engage that consumer with the product messages,” says Gayle Troberman, MSN’s general manager of branded entertainment. Ms. Troberman is part of the team that will develop and supply the new site with content. “The video provoked debates...but how do you get the product message in there?”

Another challenge for Dove: Other companies, too, are developing online communities to target women. The Internet is littered with women-focused Web sites, dominated by big players such as Glam Media, a site that specializes in fashion and beauty, and iVillage, part of General Electric’s NBC Universal, according to comScore. Unilever’s main rival, Procter & Gamble, has more than one online community aimed at women. One of its sites, Capessa, which appears on Yahoo, is a forum for women to discuss subjects such as parenting, pregnancy and weight loss.

Driving traffic to the new site also may be a challenge for Dove, which spent $188 million on ads in the U.S. last year, according to TNS Media Intelligence. It is an area where even major marketing players such as Anheuser-Busch have stumbled. “You can have extremely relevant information and content but if no one is seeing it, what is the point?” says KathyO’Brien, marketing director for Dove in North America.

Dove is hoping that teaming up with MSN, Microsoft’s Web portal, will help address that issue. MSN, Ms. O’Brien says, “gives us accelerated access” to millions of people.

Amid the rush to create new advertiser-funded online communities and entertainment sites, some are doing well. One success story has been “In the MotherHood,” a social-marketing site from Sprint and Unilever’s Suave, where mothers submit short scripts about their lives and see them acted out by Hollywood stars such as “The King of Queens” star Leah Remini and Jenny McCarthy. So far the Web series, crafted by WPP’s MindShare Entertainment, has had 15 million views.

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