Brand over-reach: Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ bottle shapes

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Doug Kessler

30. 07. 2017 | 6 min read

Brand over-reach: Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ bottle shapes

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A lot of big brands are getting absolutely slammed on the Internet lately.

Sometimes it’s for something one of their employees got caught doing. Like United dragging that guy off the plane because he… bought a ticket. Or banning two kids for wearing… kid’s clothes.

Sometimes it’s because of what management got caught doing. Like Barclays Bank rigging the Libor rates. Or their CEO trying to out a whistleblower.

But, increasingly, the brand-shaming is brought on by marketing. Like the stunningly tone-deaf Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad (I joined in on that one, in this schadenfreude-drenched post).

Another recent one is Dove’s ‘Real Beauty Bottles’ campaign.

In defence of the Dove Bottles

How Dove got slammed

If you missed it, Dove put out a set of ‘limited edition body washes’ (there’s a phrase I never thought I’d write) with six different, kinda-woman-shaped bottles.

It was done by Ogilvy London, the UK branch of the agency behind their massively successful ‘Real Women, Real Beauty’ campaign.

“Beauty comes in a million different shapes and sizes,” says the Dove website, “Our six exclusive bottle designs celebrate this diversity: just like women, we wanted to show that our iconic bottle can come in all shapes and sizes, too.”

Ogilvy London’s creative director Andre Laurentino told Ad Age, “The Real Beauty Bottles is one of those rare ideas which condenses decades of a brand’s legacy in two seconds.”

Here’s the video:

When this one went live, the Internet (that billion-headed beast) paused for a few seconds to decide what it thought.

And gave it a massive thumbs down.

I’m never sure how these things start. (It would be cool to study the outbreak of an Internet scourging).

Maybe it starts with some negative tweets, like these:

Dove bottles - ouch

Then a few bloggers and journalists weigh in:

Aimee Lutkin on Jezebel:

badvertising: dove bottles

(Love that metatag: “Badvertising”)

Then more tweets.

Then the story becomes about the bad tweets.

Callie Byrnes on Thought Catalog (with some headline borrowing):

And Jennifer Calfas on Fortune:

Bottles Dove Bad

Then even the tweets are about the bad tweets:

Dove gets shit over bottles

What happened here?

With Pepsi’s Jennergate, it was clear where the brand got it wrong.

With the Dove bottles, I really don’t get it.

The criticism seems mostly based on two objections:

  1. Why would anyone buy a body wash to match their body type?
    This is weird because Dove never said people should try to match their own body type when they buy. Just that bottles (like women) can come in all shapes and sizes.
  2. I don’t need no soap brand to tell me I’m okay.
    This one hurts, because it’s true: we really don’t need brands helping us with our self-esteem. (Of course, this objection would kill a zillion ads).

What I really don’t get is why did this idea cross the invisible tripwire?

Dove has been sponsoring self-esteem messages for decades now. The Real Women campaign was almost universally celebrated (in marketing circles – it did get some shit elsewhere). And it added billions in value to the brand.

Why was it okay to talk about women’s self image issues for so many years and all of a sudden become not okay?

Teen Vogue has no idea either: “We’re all for celebrating what makes us unique, but this literal approach seems to miss the mark.”

But WHY does this one miss the mark?

The Washington Post speculates, “The revamped bottles seem more tongue-in-cheek than a sincere way of celebrating women’s bodies.”

Maybe it’s that. That it’s a gimmick that somehow betrays the perceived sincerity of the original campaign.

But I think the backlash is pretty unfair.

I think it’s a fun, clever idea, well-executed. A bit gimmicky but pretty much on-strategy. And I’m genuinely surprised by the outcry over such a small play.

Funnily enough, it’s not like anyone really cares that much. But when The Internet turns against you, it looks and feels like a huge thing. The sheer number of mini-posts, each carrying a payload of bad vibes, adds up to a really big sound.

A million “Tsk”s (that tooth-sucky sound) becomes a deafening roar.

The Internet has spoken. And the poor guys at Ogilvy London have their day in the marketing stocks.

I feel bad for them.

I don’t think they did anything wrong.

They just crossed an invisible line and – boom – life turns to shit for the brand team and the agency.

And there’s absolutely no use fighting back.

No amount of explanation or defense will turn people around or erase the damage.

They just have to scrap the whole (super-expensive) campaign and slink off to lick their wounds.

And that sucks.

Because this was an innovative idea with good intentions and a solid strategy – and it was brave to actually make it happen. They could have just Photoshopped an image and saved themselves all sorts of meetings, budget and, as it happens, pain.

Think of how much work went into this. To convince the client to go for it. To cost the thing up. To tool up a whole bottling line for the new shapes. To make the video and the web page to launch it.

All that… to get shat on on the most public stage of all.


Are there any real lessons here?

It’s hard to find anything more helpful than “Don’t cross any invisible lines.”

Because the Internet distorts everything.

It turns tiny cute things into mega-hits (the most retweeted tweet of all time is a teenager asking Wendy’s for free chicken nuggets).

And creates real celebrities out of people whose only talent is a desperate need for fame.

And can drive people into deep hiding for making the mistake of making their mistakes near someone with a camera phone.

And can turn a brand into an overnight hit… or take away all that mojo on a whim.

Be very afraid

I like corporation-bashing as much as the next guy (actually slightly more than the next guy but not as much as the guy next to the next guy) – but this trend scares me.

Public beatings like this will make all marketers a lot more timid.

They’ll inevitably lead to the premature death of tens of thousands of good ideas (and, to be fair, hundreds of thousands of bad ones).

If the price of trying something different is this high, we’ll all aim low.

To steer straight for the middle of the road.

Where it’s safe from the collective ‘Tsks’ of the Internet.

Because no one ever slams yet another soap ad about smoother, softer skin.

The real lesson

Maybe the real lesson here is that brands shouldn’t overstep their boundaries in their search for ‘deeper meaning’.

Maybe people are starting to get sick of brands pretending to have deep values and beliefs when really they’re just… products with a sprinkling of connotation on top.

If so, we’re entering an interesting time. Because, for the last decade or so, every brand has been chasing its ‘Why’. Looking beneath the obvious performance benefits of a product (‘Cleans your face without drying it’) to discover something way more important (‘Celebrates women of all shapes, sizes and colours’).

Simon Sinek told us that no one buys what you do, they buy why you do it. That’s what made Nike Nike and Apple Apple.

But maybe a new generation of consumers is starting to get tired of that game. To see right through it.

Maybe they don’t want their beer to teach them about tolerance. Or their soft drink to heal international conflicts. Or some other beer to pretend it cares about veterans.

Maybe people have figured out that beers can’t care. Only people can care. And if those people are on brand teams, then that caring may be hiding another agenda (um: beer sales?).

If that’s what’s happening, brand stewards have some choices to make:

Think hard about attaching your brand to things that matter way more than your brand ever could.

If you do decide to go that route: walk the talk. Paying for one child-of-a-veteran’s college education, then spending 90 times more to broadcast that fact to the world (as Bud just did with Adam Driver), may not work any more. (It did for them… whew).

In short: know your place.

Recognise that the real role you play in people’s lives might just be cleaning their faces or satisfying their thirsts.

And that maybe that’s all people want from you anyway.


Turns out Martina Olbertova (a friend) wrote about this in much more semiotic detail in her LinkedIn post ‘On Dove & Meaning: What Exactly Went Wrong Here? A Cultural Analysis‘).

She cites ‘an acute lack of empathy for the female soul’ as a primary reason for their failure.

Published in:

  • Brand

  • brand over-reach

  • branding

  • Simon Sinek

  • stories

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  1. Edwin Vlems

    July 30th, 2017

    Did everyone ever wonder why someone calls a beauty product after a pigeon? I know the real answer, but Unilever tries to hide it: because they bought the dove soap factory (the first one that produced powder soap) from a pigeon lover in the first half of the 20th century. Charles Pleines, inventor of powder soap, called his factory ‘De Duif’, Dutch for Dove. He even installed a tower on the premises, where the doves could live.

    But then why does Unilever hide this fact? Because Charles Pleines got into a fight with the Dutch government and was exiled, never to return. They say they invented the name in the fifties and don’t talk about Charles. But the Pleines family knows better.

    I saw an interview the other day with the Unilever CMO telling that the company should stop inventing stories (because of the backlash) and should tell real, authentic ones..

    They could start with the story of Charles Pleines. And his doves.

    1. Doug Kessler

      July 31st, 2017

      Wow. That’s one cool back story.

      De Duif sounds like an underground splinter cell attacking the secret government lab that’s working on a Unified Field Theory of bounce, body & shine.

      Be very careful who you talk to about this, Edwin.

  2. Lionel Binnie


    August 10th, 2017

    Good point about everyone has watched Simon Sinek’s Ted talk, so we all have to get in touch with our ‘why’.
    I like that talk, and it made me think a lot about my ‘why’;
    It’s a good anti-dote to completely soul-less capitalism; help people find some more meaning.
    but in the case of a lot of businesses, (like Dove) what we are trying to do for people is a) make and sell good soap and b) make money for employees and stockholders.
    Insane Honesty – I just re-read that slideshare and its always inspiring!

    1. Doug Kessler

      August 12th, 2017

      Thanks Lionel.

      We love the Sinek talk too. Wrote about it here:

      But the Dove bottle fail shows there’s a tension between digging deep for that ‘why’ and inserting your product into issues it has little right to comment on.

  3. Lionel Binnie


    August 15th, 2017


  4. Putlocker


    March 13th, 2018

    I saw an interview the other day with the Unilever CMO telling that the company should stop inventing stories (because of the backlash) and should tell real, authentic ones..

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