Dove teams up with Ugly Betty in China

by User Not Found | January 15, 2009
I hesitate to post about another Unilever brand so soon after discussing Axe, but this article from The Wall Street Journal is just too relevant to ignore.

Dove has taken its "Real Beauty" campaign in a new direction in China, one that draws on the classic "Ugly Duckling" story of transformation. The success of this campaign so far speaks to the power of ideas and archetypes that transcend culture.

Like many marketers, I am a fan of the Dove "Real Beauty" campaign. Back in 2006, when I first posted about the success of the Evolution video, I said, "Dove recognizes that a brand needs to stand for something and does so in a way that seems genuine, not contrived."

Some who commented on the post took issue with how "real" the "Real Beauty" Campaign was, pointing out that its prime objective was to sell soap. Others pointed out that the idea of "real beauty" had been espoused by the Body Shop for many years. At the time, I was not sure that either of those points undermined the effectiveness of the campaign, but I did predict that the appeal of the campaign would be not be universal.

In a subsequent post written after the Onslaught video was launched, I observed that by attempting to address and resolve an acute contradiction in society, Dove was following the recipe for an iconic brand—but I wondered how strongly that contradiction was really felt.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article confirms that I had the right idea. The proof lay in the campaign's failure to gain traction in countries where the concept of idealized beauty still held sway. While Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty" struck a chord for many in the West, it failed to do so in China because, as Mike Bryce, Unilever's Asia regional brand development manager for Dove skin care states, "[in China] a model on billboards is something that women do aspire to, and feel is attainable."

But I think there is more to it than the difference between the two cultures regarding the concept of beauty. People in China also have a more positive view of advertising than those in the West. They tend to see it as a source of useful information rather than a manipulative annoyance. Dove's Evolution was successful in the West partly because it confirmed many people's belief about advertising.

The whole basis of Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty" was too dependent on Western attitudes and tensions – both to do with beauty and to do with advertising - to travel well.

Learning from this, Dove took a new approach in China, launching a Chinese version of "Ugly Betty," known in America from the ABC-TV comedy but originating from a Colombian telenovella. (For more detail, see this blog post.)

The story of Ugly Betty, who uses her brain to triumph over male chauvinism and company politics to win the heart of her boss, draws on the classic fairy tale, "The Ugly Duckling," by Hans Christian Andersen. The script of "Ugly Wudi," as the show is called on China's Hunan Satellite Television, is built around the Dove brand. The WSJ reports that "protagonist Lin Wudi, who works at an ad agency, learns to unveil her own beauty, using Dove products and working on an imaginary ad campaign for the brand."

The "Ugly Duckling" tale has been adapted countless times since it was first published in 1843. Clearly this is testimony to its lasting appeal. Moreover, the ideas of transformation and finding ones rightful place in society are surely ones that appeals across cultures.

These ideas certainly seem to be working for Dove in China. A survey conducted by Millward Brown at the end of the show's first season found that unaided awareness of Dove rose 44 percent among all target consumers and more than tripled among those who watched the show. The WSJ also reports that Unilever's internal shipment numbers for Dove Shower Cream in November - after the first "Ugly Wudi" season ended - were up 21 percent over the same month last year.

It seems to me that Dove's Chinese positioning is a substantial departure from what made the brand such a marketing darling in the West. Do you agree? And, if so, do you think it matters? Please let me know.


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  1. Helena, January 05, 2011

    This article is old but I still like to react.
    I have this class, international communication where I am seeing a lot of cultural differeces between countries. It seems to me that the Chinese people don't understand, because of our culture that is also a way of mocking with ourselves.
  2. Blaine, February 10, 2009
    Hi, Nigel. I have bought your new book, The Global Brand, which gives me fresh understanding on the BrandDynamics Pyramid.

    As for the Chinese edition of the "real beauty" campaign, actually Dove in China is a strong brand (high advantage, I guess) but with low presence, so embedding it into a TV series is a sound way to raise awareness. Besides, since the financial tsunami has made advertisers in China cut their budget, they need new frugal media to raplce the traditional media. So they choose product placement.

    Anyway, Ugly Wudi is another copycat like Super girl which arouse high enthusiasm in China young generation. We also saw Dove Real Beauty North America edition print in subway here, about 2 years ago.
  3. Diveya Shah, January 26, 2009
    Hi Nigel , this campaign clearly shows beauty is only skin deep regards diveya shah
  4. Popular People » Blog Archive » Kim Po, January 19, 2009
    [...] Nigel Hollis » Blog Archive » Dove teams up with Ugly Betty in China [...]
  5. Philip Herr, January 15, 2009
    Hi Nigel, your point about the lack of cynicsm in China with respect to advertising was the key. I am sure that Chinese women, if pushed, will acknowledge that models featured in ads reflect an idealized version of beauty. But the fact that they are less skeptical is what renders the power of "Campaign for real beauty" impotent. I guess at some point soon, the Chinese population will lose their innocence.

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