Since its launch in 1957, the Dove brand of soap and other skincare products (which sold over $3 billion in 2005) had grown explosively, with recent revenues boosted dramatically by the “Campaign for Real Beauty” launched in September 2004. The associated advertising, which featured unaltered photographs of normal-looking women with curves and wrinkles, carried the tagline “As tested on real curves,” inviting consumers to challenge society’s stereotypical views of beauty. In addition, the 2006 Dove Self-Esteem Fund was launched to help every female feel positive about her appearance. The fund’s introductory ad, aired as the first female-targeted Super Bowl ad, featured young girls and their image insecurities.

In stark contrast, Unilever’s Axe brand of men’s toiletries upheld these very stereotypes, with slick, often sexually explicit ads featuring young, scantily clad, conventionally attractive women and promising that the deodorants and body sprays would “give men the edge in the mating game.” Targeting 14- to 25-year-old men, the Axe brand was sold in sixty countries and in the early 2000s had annual sales approaching $600 million. Among the brand’s award-winning promotions: Listening 101, a TV ad featuring a woman talking to a man while he faced distractions including a football game and two women kissing, and, a website allowing visitors to tickle an image of a scantily clad model with a feather-cursor. Despite criticism that such promotions encouraged inappropriate male behavior, Axe sales growth consistently outpaced company averages, suggesting that the positioning was here to stay.

The direct conflict between the Dove and Axe images was also evident in how these two businesses operated within Unilever. For example, each brand maintained responsibility for its own P&L statement. Unsurprisingly, there were also differences between the Dove and Axe brand teams. Though both teams had primarily male brand managers, the Dove team tended to wear lighter colors, with leadership and other team meetings featuring organic meals and music by female artists like Melissa Etheridge. The team for Axe, the company’s “rebel” brand, lived by the motto “ask for forgiveness, not permission,” and initiated new members into the “Axe Fraternity” using a ceremony with elements from the movie “The Matrix” (e.g., selecting a red pill). Axe brand team members were more likely to be clad in black shirts and designer jeans, and their sales meetings featured high-adrenaline activities (e.g., mechanical bull riding), copious amounts of alcohol, and late nights. Tellingly, in 2005 Axe brand managers had approached Unilever’s COO about moving the team from the staid office headquarters in Greenwich, Connecticut, to New York City’s SoHo area, the epicenter of “cool.”

Though Dove and Axe had coexisted peacefully at Unilever to that point, this was one indication of their inherent tension. The public was aware of the brand conflict as well. There had been an increase in consumer complaints about the Dove-manufacturer’s tacit support of a brand (Axe) that objectified women. Unilever’s potential hypocrisy had even been featured on radio talk shows. The key question: How could the same company that launched Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, celebrating women’s natural appearance over media stereotypes, be behind the arguably degrading depictions of females in ads for Axe?

In 2004 Unilever’s board of directors had developed an umbrella mission statement, “Adding Vitality to Life.” Despite this theme’s eloquence, Unilever’s senior management team struggled with what exactly the positioning meant in the context of their many disparate brands. Was there truly a way to develop consistent messaging among these? As Unilever management considered how to convey to the media, the public, and even the company itself how they could make “Adding Vitality to Life” a true umbrella mission, the Dove-Axe conflict weighed heavily on their minds.

In the Kellogg case study Unilever’s Mission for Vitality, David Austen-Smith discusses the circumstances around the development of the “Adding Vitality to Life” mission in detail—including even more specifics of the Dove-Axe conflict.

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