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Don’t just rename, stop manufacturing Fair and Lovely

Shivaji Dasgupta, Managing Director, Inexgro Brand Advisory, writes why the thinking is smart but the intent is shallow and coming from Unilever, it is deeply disappointing

Shivaji Dasgupta

When the Rainbow Nation was established in South Africa, they did not just rebrand apartheid, instead they abolished it. When Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, the principles of governance changed, and not just the name. When slavery or Sati was considered inhuman these practices were abolished and not just readdressed. Most recently, statues of Cecil Rhodes and imperialists were ejected from city squares, not quaintly rechristened.

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The simple point I wish to make is that renaming Fair and Lovely or removing such overtly whiteness-inducing nomenclature from communication  texts is a marketing sham and not a principled stand. If the case was indeed the latter, the Anglo-Dutch giant should have stopped manufacturing it as the purpose for application will remain the same, whatever you may say. Impressionable youngsters will patronise the brand for the perceived nobility of lightness in skin textures and retailers across the universe will continue referring to it as the brand formerly known as you know what. However, these are highly profitable businesses so even the finest corporation cannot afford to ignore that compelling  truth, so this fake shortcut becomes a permissible strategy.

There are many brands that come from questionable racist or diabolical lineage but either they have become acceptable in new realities or at least, the management is not putting up a denial stunt. The diamond trade is as exploitationist as it gets but that is no longer a reason for anybody to get disenchanted and De Beers did not ever rechristen them. However each time child labour became public, brands as large as Levi’s and H&M discontinued production contracts while Body Shop built its credentials on fair trade. Volkswagen was blessed by none other than Adolf Hitler but no post-war management tried to earn cheap karmic points by renaming or withdrawing the brand. When cigarettes were proved to be murderous and not indulgent, the public-private momentum moved towards a total ban while the inhuman process of extracting wool from sheep is leading to genuine portfolio rejigs.

My erstwhile employer, the Havas Group, does proprietary work on brand purpose and one significant global truth is its correlation to truthful action and not just communication. In fact millennials value this quality very highly and a fine example is how Starbucks changed its policies after the recent racist episodes in the USA. There is no compulsion to order when sitting in any branded store and while this must be affecting business the company certainly earned momentous respect, impossible through just a clever advertising campaign. Especially in the post-Corona world where trust deficit is at its highest, the appetite for cosmetic change, literally and otherwise, has shrunk further and while the PR machinery will enthuse positive reactions, real consumers will not be impacted. Those who use the same for fairness will continue to do so and those who can see through the scam will lose significant respect for the giant.

Now you may argue that this company has been investing in course-corrective communication for years in order to change societal perceptions and promote the positive impact on skin health. At one level this is an amusing role reversal in marketing as somebody at some point chose to connect a chemical formulation to a customer benefit, just as the anti-hangover Party Smart is identical to Liv 52. However, equally fairly HUL is not in the business of social transformation and will only latch on to such threads when profitable or necessary, just like Titan does in the second marriage, Ariel invests in sharing the load or Tata Tea induces actionable patriotism. All that we ask, as responsible and intelligent customers, is that a company of this stature should stop playing consumer vote-bank politics and focus on genuine scalable actions.

It would be mighty interesting to note the reactions of the me-too fairness brigade present as full-fledged brands or commoditised experiences. Emami must be pondering on the Fair and Handsome strategy and I would advise them to stay put, as a male orientation automatically deflects the prejudice angle and makes the issue amusing. Besides, somebody must teach HUL how to play the game straight batted and reiterate the virtues of candid honesty, as long as not illegal. But I do suspect brisk business for trademark attorneys as many try to replace the overt cues of fairness, in a time-honoured tradition of aping the global maestro in good and bad.

In sum, I must insist that the name change is a clever way to build favourable public perceptions while continuing to pocket the discrimination-fed revenues. If the intent was truthful then the brand should have been discontinued, as perceptions about application will not change. The thinking is smart but the intent is shallow and coming from Unilever it is deeply disappointing.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of and we do not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

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