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As a global, massive consumer products goods conglomerate, Unilever exerts tremendous influence. Its products, advertising, packaging, and marketing are available in every country in the world, which means that its responsibilities and necessary considerations of consumers’ preferences and needs also are global. Those considerations signal some shifting demands that span a variety of societal issues, including the prevalence of narrow beauty standards, which traditionally have been reinforced by Unilever’s own packaging.

Specifically, for many beauty and personal care products, Unilever differentiates those that support people’s unique needs. If someone tends to have dry hair, they might seek a moisturizing shampoo for example. But in that categorization, Unilever brands also have widely used the term “normal” to refer to a particular option. Such wording problematically establishes a normative category that ignores the true diversity among consumers, and marketing that fails to include diverse representations has reinforced that exclusionary approach.

Acknowledging the ways in which such representations and language can impose and encourage ethnic and racial discrimination, Unilever has vowed to remove the “normal” terminology from all its packaging. It also committed to greater diversity in its marketing communications, in which models no longer will be subject to digital alterations to the shape or size of their bodies or the color of their skin.

These responses did not originate solely within the firm. It commissioned a massive, multinational survey study of around 10,000 consumers to find out what they thought. More than half of them explicitly noted that beauty brands left them feeling excluded from marketing efforts. Even more of them—something like 70 percent—disliked the term “normal.” What consumers across nine countries, such as Nigeria, the United States, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia, wanted instead was a company that sold products to help them look better while also enabling them to feel good about their purchases.

Such research insights have been instrumental in defining Unilever’s plan for the future. In addition to committing to more inclusionary packaging and marketing, it has promised to increase the diversity of its management team, provide more benefits and opportunities to its own employees, and work with more minority-owned suppliers. The company’s CEO pronounced, in revealing these commitments, that “Without a healthy society, there cannot be a healthy business.”

The company previously had taken some steps to addressing racial and ethnic biases, such as by renaming a product line “Glow and Lovely,” to replace the brand name “Fair and Lovely.” It also has revised its packaging before, when it removed promises that products could whiten or lighten skin. Such products remain popular, especially in countries in which discrimination based on skin tone leads people to seek products that might alter their skin’s natural appearance. But according to critics, even after these earlier changes, advertising continued to prioritize lighter skinned models, often with straight hair.

Thus, to live up to the promises of its latest changes, Unilever will need to go further than revising the package labels. If it is to help people feel better, and to better society as a whole, it needs to follow through on ensuring inclusivity across all elements of its operations.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do these packaging decisions align with current conscious marketing trends?
  2. Are such efforts sufficient for Unilever to address the issues surrounding the packaged goods and beauty markets? Why or why not?
  3. What other efforts should Unilever adopt to address such ethical issues?
  4. What kinds of research did Unilever conduct to develop its ethical plan? Were they sufficient?

Sources: Peter Adams, “Unilever Bans Use of ‘Normal’ in Beauty Packaging, Ads in Bid to Break Stereotypes,” Marketing Dive, March 9, 2021; Derrick Bryson Taylor, “Maker of Dove Soap Will Drop ‘Normal’ from Beauty Products,” The New York Times, March 9, 2021; Peter Adams, “Unilever’s Ambitious New Plan for Fighting Social Inequality Includes More Diverse Advertising,” Marketing Dive, January 21, 2021