Abid Hussain Barlaskar

What can the fairness segment learn from HUL's move towards skin colour equality?

HUL recently announced changes in its skincare portfolio, with the rebranding of its flagship fairness cream brand Fair & Lovely. The company will stop using the word ‘Fair’ in the brand name.

Over the several decades of its presence in the Indian market, Hindustan Unilever’s ‘fairness cream’ brand Fair & Lovely has been called out on multiple occasions for ‘racist’ advertising that often projects the white skin colour as superior. After growing by leaps and bounds since its launch in 1975, HUL has finally decided to chuck the ‘Fair’ from the Fair & Lovely brand name.

The company announced that the move is a step towards “taking forward the brand’s journey towards a more inclusive vision of beauty...” Apart from Fair & Lovely, other popular beauty brands from HUL are Pond’s, Vaseline and Dove. Over the years, HUL also extended the ‘fairness cream’ brand to several other products like soap and face wash, and even launched Fair & Lovely variants for men.

Before we proceed to the rest of the story, here’s a list of products from the brand bouquet that Fair & Lovely belonged to - Santoor Skin Whitening Body Lotion, L’oreal White Perfect Cream, Neutrogena Fine Fairness Brightening Serum, Lakme Absolute Perfect Radiance Skin Lightening Light Cream, Shiseido White Lucent Skin Brightening Cream, Biotique Bio White Orchid Skin Whitening Body Lotion, Avon Skin So Soft - Soft & White Intensive Whitening Hand & Body Lotion, VLCC Ayurveda White And Bright Glow Gel Cream, Vaseline Healthy White Lightening Visible Fairness Body Lotion, Nivea Extra Whitening Body Lotion, Lotus Herbals Whiteglow Skin Whitening & Brightening Gel, Emami Fair & Handsome.

All the brand names mentioned here are laden with descriptors that are synonymous with fairness.

It is still unclear as to what the new brand name will be. Speculations are that ‘Fair’ could be replaced with a close synonym. However, HUL says that descriptors like ‘fairness’, ‘white/whitening’ and ‘light/lightening’, ‘that could indicate a fairness-led transformation’, would be also removed from Fair & Lovely’s packaging.

Reportedly, the brand generates revenues worth over Rs 4,100 crore annually, and commands around 70 per cent of the fairness creams market in India. HUL’s move also comes in the middle of a major global movement against racism, which was triggered by the killing of George Floyd, an African-American man, in Minneapolis, USA.

A few days prior to HUL’s announcement, Johnson & Johnson (J&J) announced that it was discontinuing its ‘skin whitening’ creams like Clean & Clear Fairness and Neutrogena’s Fine Fairness range of products.

HUL has faced severe criticism for its ‘racist’ advertising many times in the past. So, what has changed now? Also, what does it mean for the brand, and what will be the impact on the ‘fairness’ industry?

Industry speak:

Sita Lakshmi Narayan Swamy, brand and consumer expert

Every beauty brand internationally has a ‘fairness’ product. So although it might seem like an Indian and South-East Asian thing, it’s not. Fairness not only means beauty, but also signifies that a fair person belongs to the upper echelons of the society, which means that you are born with better genetics, are wealthy and belong to a higher social strata. This a deeply rooted socio-cultural phenomenon.

So, if you aren’t fair, you are perceived as inferior. There is another aspect to it. ‘Beauty opens doors’, meaning it provides access to better jobs, better prospects in terms of marriage/courtship, and many other kinds of opportunities.

Sita Lakshmi Narayan Swamy
Sita Lakshmi Narayan Swamy

Coming to Fair & Lovely - Which is the most successful youth brand in India? Many would name brands like Pepsi, but it actually is Fair & Lovely. Now go back to the context that I previously set. Which is the age when you need the doors to be opened? You are young, getting out of college, looking for a partner, and your parents are putting you up on matrimonial sites. Fair & Lovely was successful, not only in terms of endurance, but it was also being used across both urban and rural India.

Now with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and the global realisation of the idea of looking down on a race due to skin colour, the idea of ‘fairness’ became unfair. The movement transcends age groups, and primarily involves the youth. Brands which have global presence and whose equity depends on a global consumer base, are under pressure to re-evaluate their strategy.

Local and regional brands might still not budge, and will continue to cater to the local demand. They will have to weigh the pros and cons. Brands with global presence might expect a global backlash, and other products in their portfolio might be in trouble and may face boycotts, etc.

Again, if the company believes that people should be happy with their skin colour, then they should not offer a ‘fairness’ product at all. If you find another way of selling such a product, it would only mean that you were looking for a way to avoid the negative connotations.

Amitava Mitra, brand and communication specialist

Let's not forget that the core brand idea evolved from real insights, consumer behaviour, and a perceived need that was, and still is, prevalent in our society. What is amazing is that this brand has been the bestseller for 45 years, and the same society that has always been critical of it, marvels at the fact that consumers love it, believe in it, and have been using it for generations. No brand can survive 45 years and be so successful if the product didn't perform.

F&L's brand loyalty is again a generational loyalty in many homes. It has also been selling on a very positive word-of-mouth and belief. So, there's contradiction in our society. On one hand, it has been criticised, and people love it, on the other.

Amitava Mitra
Amitava Mitra

The brand has been under constant scrutiny and fire for years for its name, brand idea and communication, which has had racial overtones. But, HUL ignored these pressures in the last four decades.

What changed now? I believe it's not solely out of pressure. It's a strategic move to refresh a 45-year-old brand. Evolve it to the next level and, in the process, give it a whole new identity. In all likelihood, it'll have a completely new name. A brand as powerful as F&L can afford to go in for a new makeover without losing very much. The brand idea and positioning will also be tweaked, and will have greater appeal to today's new generation, who are still seeking to ‘glow’ their skin.

Sharda Agarwal, co-founder, Sepalika, a healthcare advisory

To stay relevant and build shareholder value, brands need to build a ‘deep’ role in their consumers’ lives. HUL and F&L were successful because they stayed true to this course.

But to perpetuate a belief that a woman/man can use skin colour to get ahead in life, or that skin tone is a measure of self-worth, is not what responsible companies should do. Especially in India, where people (women in particular) are socially discriminated against on the basis of their complexion.

Sharda Agarwal
Sharda Agarwal

In that context, I welcome this move by both J&J and HUL. Though it’s quite apparent that an unfortunate event had to trigger this move. Fair & Lovely is a big brand. No company will take that financial risk and steer away from a proposition that’s held so well for them.

I’m sure HUL will come back with versions of beauty that come close to fairness, without actually using that word. Glow and radiance come pretty close, and aren’t controversial.

A brand’s proposition comes not just from its name, but from the semiotics surrounding it. Packaging, communication and brand colours are all the ‘levers’ (pun unintended) the company can use to stay away from the controversy and still communicate the original proposition.

Other manufacturers will follow suit. They have no choice. It’s too unpopular to remain in this space. Marketers in India know that #BlackLivesMatter is unlikely to gain huge momentum in India anytime soon.

Tarun Singh Chauhan, brand consultant from TSC consulting

So, it is not a fairness cream anymore. Then what was HUL selling for all these years? It’s like Bru instant coffee saying it’s not ‘instant’ anymore. So, it is either a fairness cream, or it isn’t. The brand has been right for so long, that’s why consumers were buying it, and that’s how Fair & Lovely became so big.

Tarun Singh Chauhan
Tarun Singh Chauhan

The brand has been pressurised by people outside its consumer base to change. Now, HUL is, in a way, telling its core consumers that it has been misleading all along. How can you suddenly let the consumer down?

So, if the brand feels that it hasn’t been correct, it should apologise with a full-page (newspaper) ad... If HUL really believed in the product, it should have stayed with it. The moment you change the name, the brand ceases to exist...

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