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Selling Beauty in A Global Market

by on July 15, 2010

It’s no secret that different cultures often-times have different standards of beauty. That’s why global brands offer different products to different countries, catering to whatever their cultures are. But what happens when cultural ideals of beauty clash? And, what happens when brands are caught in the middle?

In India, having lighter skin is typically an indication that you belong to a higher caste system. So many Indians with dark skin strive to lighten their skin in an attempt to elevate the perception of their social status. And, this is why skin-whitening has been big business in India for years.

Now, usually when people attempt to alter their “natural” state of aesthetic characteristics there is some controversy and debate about whether they are self-hating or being something they are not, etc. But in India, skin-color is a very deep, psychological issue for many. Two years ago a man was convicted of driving his wife to suicide because he called her “black”.

Recently, Vaseline, owned by Unilever, launched a Facebook application in India that allows users to lighten the color of their skin in their profile pictures. This application is intended to promote their new skin-lightening product for men. And, not everyone has  embraced this with open arms. Some would say that Vaseline is encouraging self-hate in dark Indians.

From a marketing perspective, I realize that companies such as Vaseline are simply tailoring their offerings and promotions to culturally different consumer segments. In other words, it’s nothing personal…just business. But global companies tasked with catering to consumers from wildly different cultures have to be wary of alienating certain market segments when seeking to promote to others. In other words, they have to avoid a clash of cultures amongst their consumer base, especially in an increasingly connected world, thanks to the internet and particularly social media.

Facebook has a massive global audience; that’s why it was a mistake for Vaseline to launch an application that could ignite such a heated debate of race and self-hate on a global scale. Yes, Facebook was a great way for Vaseline to peddle a product to a ripe market in India. But, Vaseline should have realized or been more considerate of two things:

1. Skin bleaching products that carry a lot of explosive baggage in a global market because they are associated with skin-color, which is associated with race, which is associated with racism, which is associated with societal status, etc.

2. By using a social media platform as globally far-reaching as Facebook, their specially targeted message was going to reach unintended audiences and offend some people.

So, the lesson in this case is this: companies must be extremely considerate of what platform they are using to reach a certain target audience and gauge the risk of reaching unintended audiences with a possibly offensive or controversial message. To do otherwise is to increase the likelihood of alienating certain segments of their consumer base, thereby damaging their brand.

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From → India

9 Comments
  1. Shinett – I really like this controversial topic you picked. It is very touchy and sensitive. However should Vaseline as a brand get involved in the social implications that are connected with skin bleaching? That would need to be an ethical policy that the company takes a stand against and since they decided to promote a product that actually sells well, it appears to me their stand is about the bottom line. I would like to know how the people inundated with this kind of product promotion actually feel about. Is there a cultural believed within the country that this is a promotion for self-hatred or just a beauty-enhancing product.

  2. shinetteb permalink

    Linda: This is a response Vaseline gave to a CBS article on the subject….

    “spokesman for Unilever, the parent company for the Vaseline brand, was not immediately available for comment.

    Update: After this story was published, a spokesman for Unilever sent the following statement to CBSNews.com.

    Vaseline is committed to creating culturally relevant products that meet the needs of its consumers in markets around the world.Much like self-tanning products in North America and Europe, skin lightening products are culturally relevant in India. In India, men use these products to lighten and even out their natural skin tone and to reduce the appearance of spots while protecting their skin from the sun. The Facebook application was created for the Indian market as a culturally relevant and engaging way for Indian men to interact with this product. “

  3. shinetteb permalink

    Here’s another article from 2008 discussing why Indian men buy the products: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/03/AR2008050302146.html

  4. I just came across these articles! Good topic!

  5. Amina permalink

    After reading your post I kept thinking about the beauty industry and I remember that once in Brazil there was a big discussion about the beauty products that change the natural ways of human beings. The problem was how black women were obsessed about having their hair straightened and were using all sorts of products to have this effect. Many women end up losing their hair. But until now the beauty industry still is selling the products. As you mention at the end it is just business.
    Great Topic Shinett!

  6. CarolinaB permalink

    I really enjoyed reading your post! And you make some interesting points! Great job Shinett!

  7. amim10 permalink

    Hi Shinett, this is a fascinating topic. I understand how Unilever is offering “culturally relevant” products to their intended market but I wonder how far they can take that stance. At the same time they have this campaign in India, they still have the Dove Real Beauty campaign in other parts of the world and the two messages could appear cancel each other out when placed head to head (change your skin/love your skin/no, change it/wait, we mean love it).

    It may not be much of a concern right now, since Dove and Vaseline have distinct brand images whereas Unilever does not. But people within marketing and advertising are starting to take notice: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jul/16/unilever-hypocritical-promoting-skin-lightening

    I wonder how much thought Unilever has given the issue, even if talk of hypocrisy doesn’t move beyond industry circles. With an increasing emphasis on corporate transparency, and how easy it is for a consumer to find a product on the other side of the globe in just one click, it should definitely be something on their radar.

  8. This is definitely a topic that sparks conversation! I wonder who on the corporate side made this decision. I wonder if it was an idea really thought through, with the bottom line coming out on top…

  9. Great post this week and choice of topic to blog about. Clearly many of your classmates found this an interesting post worth discussing and commented on it because of that fact. What I found particularly strong about your post, aside from the subject choice, was that you took a clear stand on your point of view about it. It was clear from your post how you felt about the campaign and you offered a concrete point of view on what could have made this campaign better and what areas the brand fell short when conceiving the campaign. The links that you offered were relevant and helped to fill in context behind your post and the image that you used for the post told the story of what you were writing about instantly. Finally, the title of your post was accurate and spoke exactly to what you were posting about. The one small caution I would add to this post just to watch out for is in how you choose the text to link to within your post. If possible, try to give the reader as much context about what a particular link will go to within the body of your post. This means that instead of linking to the word “has” as you do in the middle of your post (which doesn’t really tell the reader anything), you could link to the phrase “not everyone has embraced this” – which does give an idea of where that link would take you. Other than that small point, though, excellent post this week. (5)

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