Ananya Pathak & Shreyas Kulkarni
Points of View

Should HUL give Glow & Lovely a new formulation?

Or is a name change statement enough? Experts weigh in on the debate of the moment.

Hindustan Unilever has given the marketing fraternity a lot to discuss and debate. The company recently announced that it would drop the word ‘fair’ from its 45-year-old brand Fair & Lovely, one of the most heavily advertised fairness creams in India.

To recapitulate, on July 2, Hindustan Unilever issued this statement: “HUL today announced the next step in the evolution of its skin care portfolio to a more inclusive vision of Positive Beauty, and introduces 'Glow & Lovely', the new name for the Fair & Lovely brand. Over the next few months, Glow & Lovely will be on the shelves, and future innovations will deliver on this new proposition. The men's range of Fair & Lovely will be called 'Glow & Handsome'.”

Whether these “future innovations” include a change in the ingredients, is yet to be discovered. Meanwhile, the media, social included, has been replete with opinions on the matter. Some feel the move by HUL is a positive change completely in sync with the zeitgeist. Others say it’s a welcome attempt to be ‘woke’ and will force other brands in the fairness segment to look inwards. Still others feel it’s simply a case of a company doing too little, too late.

However, the most pertinent question on many a mind at the moment has to do with the ingredients. A popular view is that changing the name of a fairness cream, without tweaking the formulation of the product, is a mere cosmetic change. The extreme version of that view demands discontinuation of the product. This, of course, would be abrupt and impractical, especially in a high-strung economy. But the sentiment is on point in that the cream - call it anything - still contains stuff designed to lighten skin. Unless of course the ongoing overhaul on part of HUL includes a change on this front too.

We spoke to experts in the branding and marketing space, and asked them whether knocking off the word ‘fair’ is statement enough, or whether the very product and what goes into it should be re-looked.

Edited excerpts:

Ajay Gahlaut, outgoing chief creative officer and managing director at Publicis Communications

There is much discussion around HUL changing the name of its fairness cream from Fair & Lovely to Glow & Lovely. Some argue that this is merely a lip service kind of gesture towards doing the right thing, and that nothing fundamental has changed.

I believe that it’s a good beginning. No one should encourage any product that promotes a bias based on skin colour. The flip side of the coin is that the skin tone one aspires to (have) is a personal choice and a basic right of every individual.

Ajay Gahlaut
Ajay Gahlaut

And if a company enables a person to achieve that aspiration and makes money doing it, who’s anyone to complain? So, changing the formulation to disable the skin whitening effect would then be depriving people of exactly what they desire. There are arguments on both sides. However, I think HUL has taken a step in the right direction.

"Changing the formulation to disable the skin whitening effect would then be depriving people of exactly what they desire."
Ajay Gahlaut

Pranesh Misra, chairman and managing director, Brandscapes Worldwide (and ex-president, Lowe Lintas)

I don’t believe it is imperative to change formulation to coincide with the name change. In fact, I would think it would not be a positive strategy. I would expect that the current formulation delivers the promise of glowing skin. The Indian translation of fairness is close to glow.

Pranesh Misra
Pranesh Misra

So, most consumers would believe that the brand already delivers this promise. With a name change, there is a risk of re-evaluation by consumers. There are millions of loyal consumers who have full faith in the brand. They need to be reassured that the same quality will be delivered under the new brand name.

"I don’t believe it is imperative to change formulation to coincide with the name change."
Pranesh Misra

Any change of formulation would prompt them to re-evaluate and look for options.

Anupama Ramaswamy, national creative director, Dentsu Impact

Let’s be honest. We’re a highly racist and hypocritical country. It comes from years of conditioning. We have grown up believing the upper class, or strata, of the society are the fair ones. The caste system, the Aryans, the Mughals and, eventually, the British have ingrained this in us.

Anupama Ramaswamy
Anupama Ramaswamy

Fairness is associated with being elite. And, such products only make racist stereotypes stronger in the Indian mindset. Putting a value to skin colour is beyond regressive.

These products thrive in places like India, where Bollywood and pop culture make us believe that the main lead is always 'fair'. The hero always chooses the fair girl, and not the dark one.

"By changing the name from ‘fair’ to ‘glow’, nothing changes. The formulation is the same."
Anupama Ramaswamy

We have famous people trying to educate us about 'dark' being beautiful, but in vain. Fair and Lovely and other skin whitening products promote colourism, and justify the obsession of Indians with fairness.

But, companies are not expected to be the moral guardians of the society. A large number of people wish to lighten their skin tone to fight bias. So, till there is demand, there will be supply.

Colour discrimination is a real and large problem faced by the society. For starters, look at a typical matrimonial ad - a fair, beautiful bride. The bias against dark skin is not going to change by de-legitimising the aspiration for a fair one. The need is to make dark skin equally aspirational.

By changing the name (word) from ‘fair’ to ‘glow’, nothing changes. The formulation is the same. People will buy it for the same reasons. The decision to retain one half of the name must have been taken in boardrooms, where people would have talked about the equity the name has.

So, eventually, it is a way to circumvent the whole Supreme Court draft amendment. The product will continue to exist, and so will the prejudice and the regressive culture.

On a lighter note, a lesson in grammar would have helped it (the company) while choosing the name, but then we wouldn’t have enjoyed the 'memes' that are everywhere.

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

Suman Srivastava, founder and innovation artist at Marketing Unplugged, a brand consultancy

Suman Srivastava
Suman Srivastava

Fair and Lovely always claimed that it would make your face glow. It had returned to the 'glow' aspect well before the name change.

This is no longer a marketing question, it's an ethical question now. The question now is: Do you want to throw away a brand (which is worth thousands of crores), or do you want to stay with it and say that we won't throw it away because customers want it. All it can say is, we don't want to promote fairness, but the product is good so people buy it.

The marketing community is overreacting to this in the sense that you've got larger issues to deal with... We're making a big deal out of it. We've got bigger issues in this country that divide us. I think 'colour' is a smaller issue than the others which divide us, like how we treat women, the caste discrimination and the one against Muslims... We've got some gigantic shameless issues. I think making a big deal out of Fair & Lovely on social media is a minor battle win... It's not relevant.

"This is no longer a marketing question, it's an ethical question now."
Suman Srivastava

Why does Indian society value fairness more than dark skin? It's in our scriptures where there are references to colours, and it seems to be in our head. So, blaming a brand like Fair & Lovely is not right...

We shouldn't be just looking at ourselves, we should be looking at ourselves as a society. Just as the American society is saying 'Black Lives Matter'. It's evaluating its own path, history, perception about race and all the soul searching it's doing... We just can't import that soul searching and talk about it... Our soul searching is whether we believe all beings are equal. So then, what are we now doing about discrimination?

This social media activism where we're like, "Oh, let us fight Fair & Lovely..", is the least of our problems. At a time like this, when communal discrimination is taking place, that's the form of racism we ought to fight first. We can then get to the 'fair' and 'dark' issue.