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How Fair & Lovely cashed in on a mindset that equates beauty with fairness

Brands and industry experts tell that rebranding is just a shallow exercise and companies will continue to sell whiteness and beauty products as long as there is a demand for such items in the market

Fair & Lovely, a skin-lightening cosmetic product of Hindustan Unilever, was introduced to the market in India in 1975. It was the first to enter the category of ‘fairness creams’ and defined the category for most Indians who felt themselves inferior because of their skin colour. Its sharp positioning on the promise of skin whitening, plus HUL’s deep distribution and marketing muscle, ensured that F&L consistently dominated this category.  Similar products followed suit but dislodging F&L was next to impossible.

Amid its recent re-branding to ‘Lovely’, one fact that can’t be denied is that a wide spectrum of the population in India still silently fancies these products. And thus, there exists many different varieties of whitening products. talked to a few cosmetic brands and experts to analyse if the re-branding of F&L would put pressure on fellow brands to change their skin-whitening proposition.

Nisha Sampath

“In the long run, exiting the morally tenuous space of fairness products is probably a good business decision for Johnson & Johnson. FMCG companies do not have similar constraints and have more choices for their future course of action. Of course, having more choices can also make the ‘right choice’ a more challenging one to make,” said Nisha Sampath, Founder, Bright Angles Consulting.

She mentioned how the re-branding of F&L is an astute reaction by a seasoned multinational marketer. HUL is not only recognising the changing global trends but also reacting to them with surprising agility — given the size of the business, the high revenue and market share of it and its long-lasting legacy. This suggests that the company has been mulling over this decision for some time and saw this as the right moment to act.

Fairness creams have always attracted flak.

It will be very interesting to see follow-through moves from other big beauty brands such as Olay and Garnier as well as local brands such as Himalaya and Lotus. Many big players in the beauty space offer skin-lightening benefits across different products such as body wash and face wash, in addition to face creams. Within the Unilever stable, brands such as Ponds and Lakme offer it too. Will they change the claims and benefits of all offerings? Time will tell.

Ashish Thakur

Ashish Thakur, Business Head, Birla Ayurveda, hopes consumers now will have a new set of eyes for the products and brands. 

He said that in order to make a big change, it takes a lot of research, a deeper understanding of consumer needs, and its foreseen outcomes.

“What we show or sell has everything to do with the consumer psychology crafting their beliefs and hence the use of right kind of words, re-channelling focus, creating right ideals, offloading consumer racism, congruent products and the calibration of self-awareness will fuel real results,” he added.

Fair, bright skin has been the Indian beauty market’s core offering for decades now, with the mass blindfolded too towards stereotyping women and even men in some parts of the nation, by defining beauty with colour comparison. However, with voices being raised and flags being waved to emphasise the vitality of redefining not just beauty but also humanity with #BlackLivesMatter, two brands, J&J and HUL, have taken the longest stride in history and decided to rebrand the whole fairness deal.

Johnson & Johnson had also announced that it was exiting the fairness category in India and West Asia.

Manish Chowdhary

As there are several other players that have been indulged in stereotyping beauty, Manish Chowdhary, Co-founder and CEO, Wow Skin Science, said that they will now have to relook towards taking a stride too, since breaking a beauty myth like this has always been aimed at by many but now with two massive brands taking their first stride, it wouldn’t be long for the others to follow to sustain their brand equity.

Pooja Chhabra

Pooja Chhabra, Co-Founder, Nuskay, said changing the brand messaging is the first step towards achieving and promoting conscious beauty and she hopes that both consumers and brands can redefine what it means to be beautiful, which, however, will take time, education and meaningful dialogue.

Call for a downfall of ‘skin whitening’ products?

Lloyd Mathias

Lloyd Mathias, Business Strategist, Angel Investor and former Asia Marketing Head of HP Inc, is of the belief that irrespective of market need, there clearly is no case for selling a product that reinforces a racial stereotype.  

“Ethics-driven companies will work towards a more inclusive vision of beauty, which could include holistic measures of healthy skin,” he said.

Harish Bijoor

However, Harish Bijoor, CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults, said the brands will continue to sell in this space but with a far greater degree of sensitivity than before.  

 Even Sampath agrees with the point that as long as there is a market, brands and services that promise fair skin will continue to sell.

“Local brands that have less to lose than Unilever, or do not feel ethically bound to act against discrimination, will continue to promote the offering of fair skin,” she said.

Until the demand for such products fall, they will continue making them.

Vishal Mittal

It is just now that they will have to camouflage their right intentions so that they look good and conscientious, said Vishal Mittal, Group Creative Director, Dentsu One.

“They will have to be wolf in sheep’s clothing. So the message delivered won’t be that in-your-face, which it used to be. Like, instead of ‘fair’, they have already started using words like ‘glow’, ‘brightening’, etc.,” he said.

The beauty brands have a big responsibility now to promote conscious beauty and educate the consumers.

According to Chhabra, they need to change the thought process and make people truly embrace their skin colour.

F&L served a clear need for Indian consumers and that was the reason for its phenomenal success in the market. The brand created advertisements to show that fair skin is always better. Consumers that have homemade fairness rituals will continue to seek similar products as they have been conditioned for decades now.

What cemented Fair & Lovely as category creator and leader?

Mittal explained how HUL had to do this re-branding or they would continue looking silly, insensitive and regressive, which being Unilever, they can’t afford to. And earlier, there was never such a hue and cry.

There has always been a huge demand for such products in our country where dark complexion is considered negative, a detrimental and a drawback.

Big marketing spends and some great advertising has made Fair & Lovely dominate the market for years, he said.

The brand leveraged real problems such as job rejections, marriage, social isolation, which are actually faced by everyone regardless of their skin colour, and positioned fairness as the ultimate solution to all these problems.

A few ads:

One of the oldest print ads:

“This struck a chord with audiences at that time and they started believing that their physical attributes were responsible for the problems they faced in their personal and professional lives. Such marketing strategies coupled with a first-mover advantage have helped the brand attain its dominant position in the market,” said Sunil Agarwal, Chairman of RSH Global.

“F&L got the tone, tenor, need, want, desire and aspiration of the consumer in this space of fairness right. And that got for it a captive market space for 45 years,” said Bijoor.

That is the power of a strong brand idea that is anchored in our belief system and cultural truth. It latched onto the consumer’s belief, ‘my skin colour is my destiny’ and promised to change that destiny.

At some point, when we were less sensitive to our own biases, this sounded like a promise of empowerment, said Sampath.

She added, “Fair and Lovely has toned down its rhetoric a lot in recent times, but the strength of this brand idea is behind their success in the market. Spending on creating awareness, smart pricing points, and strong distribution played a role as well. Even women in rural markets are aware of, and use the brand regularly.”

Re-branding is often done to revamp or refresh a brand’s proposition — mostly driven by the need to reconnect with the evolving consumer and this is a tool used by many marketers to keep their brands relevant to changing trends, said Mathias.

However, the core benefit of the brand has been fairness and experts feel that people who buy it will still continue to do and it is shallowness and double-standard on the brand’s part to re-brand itself.

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