This week Dove has been in the firing line for producing an advertisement branded racist for seeming to depict a black woman using Dove soap to turn her skin white. Extensive media coverage of the scandal has ensured widespread criticism of Dove, with some noting that this isn’t the first time Dove’s advertising has invited censure.
There’s no doubt that the ad constituted an extraordinary lapse in judgment. As with Pepsi’s famous Kendall Jenner ad, even the most basic due diligence would have immediately flagged the potential for hostile interpretations, and it is remarkable that thorough audience testing is still not seen as a fundamental requirement for ad campaigns.
But what of the long term impact? Dove could be forgiven for fearing serious reputational damage, particularly with some critics going as far as to call for consumers to boycott Dove products. However, there are two reasons why Dove’s reputation is unlikely to suffer long-term.
First, Dove’s response followed the three golden rules of reputation management in a crisis: apologise sincerely and directly; own the issue by demonstrating an understanding of why it matters and how to fix it; and communicate clearly and proactively. By offering a full apology and immediately pulling the ad Dove took responsibility and cauterised the wound.
Second, and perhaps more importantly for Dove’s long-term reputation, the controversy has not highlighted an existing reputation weakness. Despite its previous advertisement controversies, Dove has worked hard over the years to build a brand that consciously has a wide appeal and a responsible approach to body image, and its Campaign for Real Beauty has long been regarded as an exemplar of how to promote a brand and a positive social message at the same time.
It is that brand strength that has enabled Dove’s advocates to offer a defence, or at least a contextualisation, of its error. Indeed Lola Ogunyemi, the black model who starred in the ad, wrote in the Guardian that her experience of Dove had been excellent and that the aim of the campaign was entirely admirable. And while she agreed that Dove had been right to apologise for any offence caused, she also asserted that the criticism had been based largely on a misinterpretation of the ad. Interestingly, she even censured Dove for failing to defend its creative vision by separating the clumsy execution from the overall message.
Dove’s swift and decisive response is a lesson in crisis management, but what this story also demonstrates is the importance of businesses understanding their reputations in detail. Mistakes are inevitable, but judging the tone and weight of the reaction relies on a detailed appreciation of audience perceptions. If an error speaks to a reputation weakness then the response must outline – or reiterate – commitment to change. If, however, it speaks to an area of strength, the response can contextualise the error as an exception to the rule. Sometimes a clumsy mistake is allowed to be just that.