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HUL dropping ‘fair’ an attempt to change the brand DNA?

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Industry experts are mostly of the opinion that the name change brings up a whole new proposition for the brand

Hindustan Unilever’s announcement to rename its flagship skincare brand – Fair & Lovely – as Glow & Lovely has invited reactions, mostly cynical.

Netizens have called the move ‘a mere cosmetic name change motivated by the global image rather than a genuine concern for what it has done to the Indian psyche’. Soon after the announcement, social media went abuzz with memes of the difference (the absence of it) in the names and its impact.

The name change was also strongly objected by Indian FMCG major Emami Ltd., claiming trademark rights over the name. The company which owns the brand ‘Fair and Handsome’ reportedly stated that it had launched ‘Emami Glow & Handsome’ digitally a week back with necessary applications already made to the relevant authorities.

India’s fascination with ‘fair and light skin’ is evident from the market share that these large organisations have gained with their products for fairness and skin whitening. Fairness companies have jockeyed on this fascination by positioning fair-skinned people as being better off than the darker ones.

“A product promise that built a very successful brand is a direct reflection of what community wants or needs. Sadly, the need for fairness has been built over a long time and is much deeper than skin colour. Changing the name and dropping the ‘fair’ness promise could be the first step towards changing the mindset. But it needs to be seen whether that change was sought by a handful of woke people who probably did not even use fairness products in the first place or were real consumers looking for it and would embrace it,” says Ashwini Deshpande, Co-founder & Director, Elephant Design.

After Johnson & Johnson exited the market following a global momentum against racism in the US, Unilever announced that it will drop the word ‘Fair’ from Fair and Lovely and feature women of different skin tones, representative of beauty across India and other countries. French personal care maker the L’Oreal Group also last week said it will drop words such as ”white/whitening, fair/fairness, light/lightening” from all its skincare products.

“Ideally, what needs to change is both the word “fair” from the brand name, as well as the basic ethos of the brand. It is important to see if the change as planned, is going to be a mere semantic change or one that digs deep into the DNA of the brand and brings up a whole new proposition for the brand as opposed to its moorings in fairness and its many challenges and issues. The brand name change is an opportunity for HUL to get the brand relevant, original, innovative and politically correct for the future,” says HarishBijoor, Brand Guru & Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults iNc, on Unilever’s announcement to drop the word ‘fair’.

Some brand experts feel the name change seems a little ‘half-hearted’ and expect more from the brand in terms of positioning. “While change is never easy, I think it’s an uninspiring and insipid change that tries hard to capitalise on Fair & Lovely’s existing franchise while attempting to stay politically correct by dropping the word ‘fair’. A sort of, tick all the boxes approach. The brand’s franchise is far too entrenched, to move away from the category it defined, with the mere change of the name. While the business imperatives for a brand this size are obvious, for a company that’s at the forefront of purpose before profit, this name change seems a trifle half-hearted,” said Lloyd Mathias, Business Strategist and Angel Investor.

Talking about the evolution of the industry was Shashwat Das, Founder Director, Almond Branding.  “This is pure surrogacy. The fairness industry has evolved over the years only to replace fairness with terms such as ‘glow’, ‘even-tone’ and ‘radiance’. The underlying thought still remains the same – making you uncomfortable about your skin tone, as the cream continues to perform the same function at the end of the day. A more positive thing to do would have been to refresh the product portfolio by completely dropping the fairness range like J&J has done. Changing the name while selling the same product amounts to just lip service. It’s a classic balancing act only to ensure that they don’t directly run into any trouble with the activism fuelling across the globe while also trying to hold on to their sizeable market share. If the intentions are genuine then it will show up in days to come. It will reflect in the products, the proposition and the communication around it.”

Elaborating on the counter-arguments, Das further said, “I agree that India’s obsession with fairness is actually deep rooted. But there are many other such prejudices that exist. A brand with such a large market share and heavy media spends has a lot of influence. With that influence comes in both power and responsibility. A brand has to own up some social responsibility and decide whether it wants to profit from existing social bias or be progressive.  The brand purpose of FAL (Fair and Lovely) supposedly is “to inspire women to create their own identity”. So if the brand looks within its brand ethos, it can get answers to what products can actually inspire the modern Indian women. I would be hopeful to see an entirely new portfolio which still stands true to the larger purpose of the brand – the day when it drives the fact that ‘Healthy skin is beautiful skin’.”

Ashish Mishra, Managing Director, Interbrand India, believes the pandemic has force precipitated many overdue corrections in both life and commerce. “In many ways it has dealt the final nail in the coffin for the much touted individuality and stigmatised capitalism. The new world will have a much higher authenticity in collectivism and inclusion. The new inclusiveness will straddle all areas of personal and professional worlds. Income, status in the value chain, caste, colour, gender, nationality and perhaps physical and mental prowess will no longer be the tacit bases of entitlement. The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and globalisation of ‘Juneteenth’ are evidences of a new environment and mood that’s propitious for it. HUL’s move after J&J taking a step in this direction is therefore right. Many brands today that used the implicit aspiration of a fair skin as their basis of business will have to revise their promises and names to fall in line. Failure to do so may not only hurt business but also create a risk of being attacked as shameful advocates of skin colour based discrimination.”

Reminds us of the famous dialogue from the movie ‘Deewar’, says Ashwini Deshpande of Elephant Design. “Jao jaake pehle us aadmi ka sign lekar aao, jiske matrimonial ad me ladki gori aur sundar honi chahiye, ye likha hai.”

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Dipali Banka

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