Selling Beauty in A Global Market
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.