Aishwarya Ramesh
Points of View

As Unilever ditches the word 'normal' in packaging and ads, experts opine on the ripple effect...

Is 'normal' really a bad word? Will Unilever's move compel the personal care segment to re-look its nomenclature?

From skincare to soap, shampoo and more, Hindustan Unilever’s beauty and personal care brands are removing the word ‘normal’ from advertising and product packaging all over the world. The Positive Beauty policy, will apply to the company’s beauty and personal care brands, including Dove, Lifebuoy, Axe and Sunsilk.

HUL’s beauty and personal care brands have also committed to ending all digital alterations that change a person’s body shape, size, proportions or skin colour, and to increase the number of ads portraying people from diverse, under-represented groups.

A press release mentions a survey of 10,000 people across nine countries. Seven in 10 said that the word ‘normal’ on beauty product packaging has a negative effect on people. This figure rises to eight in 10 among 18-35 year olds.

The research looked deeper into people’s experiences of the beauty and personal care industry. It found that more than half of the people (56 per cent) surveyed said that the beauty and personal care industry can make people feel excluded. Six in 10 said that the industry creates a singular ideal of who or what is ‘normal’, and that made them feel they should look a certain way.

However, in the world of skincare and dermatology – ‘normal’ has a functional meaning. It describes a skin type which is not too dry, not too oily or prone to acne. We tried to understand the impact of this move on smaller businesses and other players. Here’s what some industry experts have to say.

Edited excerpts:

Unmisha Bhatt, chief strategy officer and director, India and MENA region, Tonic Worldwide

It's a fabulous, inspirational move. Conglomerates like Unilever have the scale and bandwidth, due to their global presence, to reach out to people and make a difference.

Advertising reflecting diversity is one thing. What will make an impact is if it (Unilever) is actually able to make, and stay true to, a commitment of enabling businesses from under-represented groups, enabling inclusivity and equal opportunity at workplaces.

It will be interesting to observe how all the brands in the Unilever portfolio stay true to this commitment in the long run, beyond just campaigns and communication. Strategically, this seems to be a move that enables enhancing brand perception – which companies are struggling with amongst audiences who have strong, influential opinions.

Unmisha Bhatt
Unmisha Bhatt

Here’s food for thought. As a brand, Unilever is making a progressive statement. But will it be able to stop selling products that are regressive? 'Glow and Lovely' may represent a change in name, but the product still feeds on insecurities. The real impact would be if Unilever critically review its brands and product offerings...

Every brand today is struggling to create positive (brand) perception. This is definitely a move to resonate with the audiences and their opinions - to be seen as a brand that cares for the society, consumers and the environment. People relate to the cause and, thus, form long-term relationships with brands.

The objective of changing nomenclature should be restricted to the context where there is a bias. This terminology of ‘normal’ in skincare comes from the intention of a technical explanation of the condition, and not of a bias. It doesn't need a change. Like they say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Instead of looking at this as an individual organisation-led brand purpose or proposition, if Unilever unites the industry and enables a large scale change together, it will show positive intent and not be seen as an opportunistic marketing initiative. Unilever should proactively reach out to regulatory bodies to enable these as guidelines in the industry, which can be implemented.

Malvika Mehra, independent creative director and brand consultant

I think the intention is correct. A step in the right direction towards promoting a more positive and inclusive idea of beauty. More and more ‘woke’ consumers today are conscious and watching brand behaviour in a social context. So if a brand walks the talk, there is a natural affinity towards it.

Proactive is better than reactive, which often puts the brand in a defensive stance. It’s not a bad thing to make a move which is ahead of the curve. For me personally, a bigger game changer for Unilever here, other than removing the word ‘normal’, is its promise to not digitally alter a person’s body shape, size, proportion or skin colour in its brand advertising. And also, increasing the number of advertisements portraying people from diverse groups who are under-represented.

Malvika Mehra
Malvika Mehra

Given the typical skin classifications used by dermatologists themselves, ‘normal’ does not personally strike me as being non-inclusive. But now that it’s pointed out, perhaps it is.

I’m guessing some brand team for Unilever diligently ploughed through a Thesaurus to find the right substitute word for this skin classification. I am curious to know what they landed. I think it will also impact Unilever’s competition. Like I said, today’s ‘woke’ consumer is watching.

Vani Gupta Dandia (ex-PepsiCo), growth expert and partner, CherryPeachPlum Growth Partners

Coming from a brand like HUL, a move like this will have a transformational impact on the industry, and the consumer world in general too.

Just changing language or dropping the word 'normal' or 'fair' isn't enough: The language change will only be noticed by the highly sophisticated and educated. This is a very small fraction of the overall consuming class in our country. The larger impact will be via what we show, and the faces or models we choose to represent brands, or the kind of packaging cues we have.

Today, the models we pick for an ad campaign determine popular notions of beauty. What we see in magazines, what we see on hoardings, the kind of models we see on packaging, all feature flawless faces with perfect proportions.

Vani Gupta Dandia
Vani Gupta Dandia

In reality, none of us are perfect and there is no such thing as a perfect face. Yet, all of advertising for ages has only showcased perfect beauty, which is why even little girls start wanting to use makeup. Perfect beauty is nothing but an illusion. It's only Photoshop chicanery.

When they show everyday girls and women in ads and packaging then attitudes could change. For example if a hair removal cream' could feature a not-so-skinny leg, bearing scars won from races and jumping fences, then we'll start changing conversations in drawing rooms and bedrooms, in small towns and big towns alike.

Kunel Gaur, founder and creative director, Animal

It’s great initiative and something that other brands should also take up. It should also spread to other categories that use descriptions like normal height, normal shape, body types, etc. In the case of beauty, it makes obvious sense, but there are several categories that should do this.

Kunel Gaur
Kunel Gaur

It would be nice to move away from ‘what is normal’. There should not be a debate about what is normal, and what isn’t. Even in terms of sexuality. Isn’t being heterosexual normal? It is a cornerstone of something that could be a good change for the long run.

Neeraj Sharma, head of strategy, Rediffusion

Purpose is the new buzzword which became clichéd before it could attain its life cycle. As Bill Bernbach once said, "A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money." He wasn’t referring to advertising cost, or the cost to change 'normal' to something else.

While we still have to see whether this purpose fascination is just for marketing, or will HUL actually hesitate if it costs money. Having said that, it's a welcome change and aligns well with the overall global strategy to appear empathetic in the bubblegum world of beauty.

Neeraj Sharma
Neeraj Sharma

If you commit to a purpose or stand for something, it's never a bad idea to take it to every granular level. Recall that IndiGo's step ladder on planes say, "Every supermodel's favourite ramp."

As far as the usage of the word 'normal' in dermatology goes… The truth is, even medical terms can be stereotypes as the world evolves. Having said that, it would help if the medical fraternity and dermatologists are taken on-board to rename the term, than coining some fancy term by some big consultants.

HUL’s move will definitely have spillover effects to other companies. But then, every brand has to find what they stand for, than just copying blindly. With every politically correct positioning, there is still room for "Men will be men" positioning, if it fits your strategy and is not in a bad taste.