Will Dove’s ‘Pepsi moment’ affect the brand in the long term?

The numbers indicate that the brand will have its work cut out to climb back up in shoppers’ short-term estimations

Amid a raging debate around a "racist" Facebook ad from Dove, data shows that consumer sentiment around the brand has been largely negative. But will the furore result in any long-term material impact?

The ad, which showed a black woman turning into a white woman after using the brand’s body wash, has since been removed. Aside from a general statement and apology in which the Unilever-owned company conceded it had "missed the mark," Dove has otherwise remained tight-lipped on the matter which seems to have only exacerbated online criticism.

Despite the backlash, including the circulation of hashtags like #DoveMustFall and #DoneWithDove, the UK advertising regulator Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) confirmed to The Drum that it had received just one complaint about the three-second video and that the "complainant believes the ad is racist."

"We’ll carefully assess the complaint," a spokesperson said. "We have not launched an investigation."

Meanwhile, data given to The Drum from YouGov shows that Dove’s ‘word of mouth’ score, which measures whether someone has talked about a brand in the last fortnight, has jumped from +2 to +6 in recent days. Unsurprisingly, the chatter has been disparaging, with YouGov’s UK tracking showing that Dove’s ‘buzz score’ – whether someone has heard something positive or negative a brand in the past two weeks – has dropped by five points to +3.

Elsewhere, social listening firm Meltwater says that in the month before the ad was published online sentiment across platforms like Twitter and Facebook was chiefly positive (62%) but after the ad was published negative sentiment increased to 50% overall, with just 32% of online commentary being positive.

Sentiment specifically around the ad is currently sitting at 81% negative, with trending phrases associated with the controversy including "racist theme", "racist ad", "victim" and "black women".

Dove's brand crisis echoes that of Pepsi's own PR disaster earlier this year, in which it aired a "tone deaf" Kendall Jenner protest ad that viewers claimed appropriated the Black Lives Matter movement.

Although the soda giant was accused of exploitative brand social activism, Pepsi's bottom line has remained largely unaffected by the controversy; suggesting long-term consumer behaviour isn't so easily influenced by online criticism.

Suggesting Dove will similarly weather the storm, YouGov’s UK head of data products, Amelia Brophy, said its figures show that the brand's overall ‘impression’ score among the general public has “so far remained steady” at around +40.

Despite its lack of communication on why it happened, Dove was quick to concede that it got it wrong.

“The short video was intended to convey that Dove body wash is for every woman and be a celebration of diversity,” it said in a statement. “It did not represent the diversity of real beauty which is something Dove is passionate about and is core to our beliefs, and it should not have happened.”

A spokesperson also said it is re-evaluating its internal processes for creating and approving content to prevent mistakes in future. The company, a longtime client of Ogilvy & Mather, has so far yet to clarify whether it was an agency or an in-house team (which it has been hastily building up in recent months) who created Facebook iteration - which was a shortened version of a longer 30-second spot.

Regardless of who is to blame, Dove will now be relying on consumer loyalty and the values it has built up over the years thanks to its decade-old ‘Real Beauty’ campaign and Unilever's wider ‘Unstereotyping’ initiative to pull it through this crisis.

Paulina Lezama, brand and purpose director at independent creative agency RY, said its carefully built reputation as the poster-child of purpose-driven brands should help Unilever court favour with consumers again.

“Is it the end of the brand?” she asked. “Absolutely not. Dove understands its purposeful ethos is more than just a marketing-tool or a one-off campaign, and that will get it through this. So, if less genuine brands like Pepsi and Volkswagen have carried on with business as usual after their faux pas, it just shows that as consumers we are quick to criticise, but we are also quick to forgive and forget."

Short term, she said, brand managers "will have some explaining to do" but in the long term Dove will "come out fighting".

The company has also had backing from the like of Lola Ogunyemi, the model involved, who spoke out against the assumption that she is a victim of the "racist ad".

She said the Facebook clip was trimmed down from a 30-second slot and that the snapshots had been "misinterpreted".

"If I had even the slightest inclination that I would be portrayed as inferior, or as the 'before' in a before and after shot, I would have been the first to say an emphatic 'no'," she said. "I would have (un)happily walked right off set and out of the door. That is something that goes against everything I stand for."

This is far from the first time Dove has made a marketing misstep. In the past 12 months alone it has sparked criticism with bottle designs meant to mimic the shape of its female customers and breast feeding ads which gave a platform to people who object to breastfeeding in public.

Rebecca Stewart

Rebecca Stewart is a reporter at The Drum. She primarily writes news, analysis and features around brand marketing and digital innovation. She has interviewed key figures from the likes of Airbnb, Amnesty International, Unilever, Facebook and Spotify, as well as covering international events like Ad Week Europe, Dmexco and Ciclope.

All by Rebecca