Change beyond skip depth

Friday, 26 June 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

When consumers demand a difference, companies can step up and revolutionise how people think. But ideally companies should not wait until this change arrives at their doorstep, usually via massive social movements. Modern consumers are increasingly demanding that the brands they affiliate with are progressive, especially when they cater to women and other minority communities. 

The #blacklivesmatter movement, which has been sweeping across the globe for weeks, has forced many people to rethink their approach to racism, and the powerful prevalence of colourism in Sri Lanka has also been the subject of vibrant discussion on social media platforms, particularly Twitter. The use of blackface by local actors was also a major point of discussion, with controversial viewpoints being expressed by both parties. In an increasingly connected world, culture wars have fluid boundaries and often spill over across countries and manifest themselves in unexpected ways.

In response to this unprecedented wave, companies have been forced to adjust. The Indian unit of Unilever (ULVR.L) said on Thursday it will drop the word “fair” from its “Fair & Lovely” range of products, which have long been criticised for promoting negative stereotypes against people with darker skin. 

Products marketed as skin-lightening have a huge market in South Asia due to a societal obsession with fairer skin tones, but those notions are being questioned more frequently. Unilever’s ‘Fair & Lovely’ brand dominates the market in South Asia. Similar products are also sold by L’Oréal (OREP.PA) and Procter & Gamble (PG.N).

The ‘Fair & Lovely’ brand name change is subject to regulatory approvals, Hindustan Unilever said. The company did not say what the new brand name would be. But there is no doubt that the product has been a major money spinner over the decades. Companies also frequently used popular Bollywood and local stars with hefty price tags and even expanded product ranges to include men. The movement demanding to have a more inclusive definition of beauty has been around for many years, in fact almost as long as the companies have been selling skin-whitening creams, but they were roundly ignored. The age-old effort of creating insecurities in women and then tapping into them to sell unnecessary and potentially harmful products, and thereby generate thumping profits, are now being rightfully rejected by many. Both large-scale and smaller companies need to become cognisant of this fact and incorporate it into their business practices. Women are more than economic units. 

Outside of the skin-whitening sector, other companies have also found themselves left behind. Victoria’s Secret has struggled to revamp its image around the world and attract new customers, after women began wholesale rejection of the white, skinny and overly sexualised trope that once made it a household brand. On Thursday, the brand abruptly closed its flagship store in Hong Kong and faces a potential stint in arbitration if it wants to avoid paying $77 million in early termination fees, according to international media reports. 

At a time when women are trailblazers in every sector and playing leading roles in everything from conglomerates to cricket, it is essential that companies, advertisers, marketers and even media focus on empowering, humane and nuanced narratives of women. As the skin-whitening industry has belatedly realised, women are seeking things that are much more than skin-deep and will no longer tolerate being told to be a stereotype. Companies need to actively drive and become part of this progressive change or go extinct.