We speak to experts to understand how Fair & Lovely can go about rebranding themselves to undo the damage.
- In a revolutionary decision,
Hindustan Unilever Limitedhas announced that it will rename the brand ‘Fair and Lovely.’ The giant said that it will drop words like ‘Fair,’ ‘White/Whitening,’ Light/Lightening’ from all its packs and communications.
- This move comes after Fair & Lovely faced a lot of backlash on social media for building unrealistic beauty standards and stereotyping skin tones.
- We speak to experts to understand how Fair & Lovely can go about rebranding themselves to undo the damage and win back consumer trust.
In the wake of Black Lives Matter, recent protests against racial discrimination in the US, social media was abuzz with people calling out beauty brands for perpetrating a bias based on skin colour. Following this, Johnson & Johnson announced that it will be discontinuing its skin lightening creams Neutrogena Fine Fairness and Clear Fairness by Clean & Clear. Now, HUL has joined the list. Albeit, it is only dropping the brand name.
Over the years, HUL’s Fair & Lovely has created an image for being a skin lightening cream. While there are many other players in this industry, Fair & Lovely has faced a lot of backlash on social media for its poor choice of brand name, advertisements and for propagating unrealistic beauty standards and stereotyping skin tones.
The statement released on HUL’s website said, "Fair & Lovely has never been, and is not, a skin bleaching product.”
However, its communication indicated otherwise. Its advertisements from the late 90s and early 20s portrayed women of colour as failures, who aced their presentations or could only upload their profiles on matrimonial websites after applying a cream. They started by selling ‘gori twacha’ (fair skin) and moved to using alternatives like ‘nikhaar’ (glowing skin), which hinted that confidence is a by-product of
About the old racist ads, HUL said, “We are aware that historic advertising is available on the internet; these ads are not aligned with the current values of the brand. In 2019, we reflected this evolution on the Fair & Lovely pack in India, removing before-and-after impressions and shade guides that could indicate a transformation; and we have progressed all communication of product benefits towards glow, even tone, skin clarity and radiance.”
So, we reached out to experts to understand how bad is the damage and how should HUL go about rebranding its popular ‘skin whitening’ product in India.
Lloyd Mathias, Business Strategist and Angel Investor, said, “I think this a positive move by HUL – though long overdue – should be welcomed. Any product or service that reinforces stereotypes, be it race or colour, is never a great proposition, and global corporations need to be very sensitive to these issues. I only wish this had happened much earlier and did not need a movement like ‘Black Lives Matter’ in the USA, and Johnson and Johnson’s withdrawing a similar offering, to precipitate it. I believe the real solution is recasting the proposition, while taking the brand towards a more inclusive vision of beauty which could include holistic measures of healthy skin.”
Ronita Mitra, Business Consultant - Founder, Brand Eagle Consulting also opines that HUL's move is just a reactive measure that was taken after Black Lives Matter.
She said, "Brands have a responsibility towards shaping opinions of its consumers and in the process, the larger society, rather than following and reinforcing existing popular belief systems. Positioning by brands on the platform of fairness has always inherently had discrimination at its core along with a reinforcement of a regressive belief system. It is indeed a positive step for brands that are re-looking at the fairness positioning and branding. Given the timing of the re-branding exercise, it does appear like a reactive measure. Nonetheless, it's a big step forward in the right direction and will eventually shape and influence consumer psyche towards a more holistic perception of beauty. Brands ought to focus more on highlighting beauty at a deeper level celebrating quality (of skin) and the person and her character."
Shashwat Das, Founder, Almond Branding was appalled by people rejoicing with this move. Das was not amused with HUL’s tokenism. He expected HUL to follow J&J and drop the products altogether that stand for colourism in India.
“In my opinion, it's only an eyewash. I am looking forward to a complete ban on skin-tone oriented products. The very foundation on which these brands are built is flawed. We have known it for years and it took 45 years and a raging anti-racial movement to force this move upon certain companies. How come there is a sudden awakening? This is not a change out of self-realisation. Had these protests not caught momentum, such a move by HUL would have taken a few more decades to come.”
The official statement of HUL says that Fair & Lovely’s advertising has evolved to communicate a message of women’s empowerment, they have started focusing on their career.
On this statement, Das said, “I beg to differ here. For years, the brand has been making young Indian girls insecure of their skin tone by promising dreams coming true through fairness. That’s not empowerment, that’s exploitation! How do you claim to support women when your entire brand story is around colourism? The damage caused in the last 45 years is too deep to be healed by a mere change in name.”
Winning back consumer trust with honesty and sensitive communication
Fair & Lovely has been in India for over 45 years now and has been one of the best-selling creams. According to The Drum, Fair & Lovely had entered the Rs 200 crore market back in 2017 and held a 60-70% share of the skin whitening industry.
Telling us how big the industry is, Rimpie Tulsiani, Senior Beauty and Personal Care Analyst, India, Mintel, said, "Historically in India, skin whiteners and lighteners contribute more than a third to overall facial care value sales. So it is a large contributor to business. And India's obsession with fair skin and persistent bias against darker faces has been the standard narrative for brand communications until recently. This narrative is now evolving to terms like “skin brightening/ whitening" and in the direction of health.”
According to Mintel research, 39% of Indian consumers define healthy skin as one that is 'fresh, followed by bright and spotless.'
To which, Tulsiani said, “The fairness category in India is currently under the radar as authorities are scrutinizing how brands communicate their claims and what ingredients they use. Whitening brands will need to accelerate their change in mindset and thereby positioning in order just to stay relevant to these consumers, they will need to regain consumer trust with honest claims and broaden their scope to skin health rather than focus on skin colour alone.”
What's in a name?
“No, it won’t just be called ‘And Lovely’,” jokes
Srinivasan said HUL should put all efforts again in rebuilding their brand image and occupying consumer minds.
“The brand's name and use-case have been drilled into minds over many years, considering the brand was launched in 1975. That use-case is: if you need 'whiter' skin, you need to pick a cream. And that one of the best creams, which is in the name itself, is Fair & lovely. Now if they change the name, it is not a big deal because they have already left an impression. However, it is in the right direction because they will be honest about what they are really selling in the cream -- standing to a truer representation of saying that you will get clearer skin without blemishes, a message they evolved after moving away from explicit connection with white/fair skin.
From a product formulation point of view, there wouldn't be any doubt in anybody's mind, which product they're talking about. However, now they need to spend a lot of money to put a new name into consumers' minds because Fair & Lovely was so iconic, it is like Maggi in India. There is a lot of history and legacy behind the brand which was built over the years through advertising and marketing. They need to spend at least a snapshot of it,” said Srinivasan.
But isn’t HUL just selling an old wine in a new bottle? Will it be able to undo the damage it has caused over the years and regain consumer trust? In a simple answer, Das said no, they can’t and they shouldn’t.
“You can’t just drop a word and claim innocence, when you still continue to sell the same product that people recognize as something that stood for colourism. At the end of the day, you are still selling a skin lightening cream, whatever fancy name you may give it. And only if Fair & Lovely does drop the entire fairness range, can it come out as a brand who seriously believes in the cause. That’s when consumers can give it a clean chit and that’s when it can regain their trust,” said Das.