The beauty industry at its very best is about dreams and possibilities, offering new ways to express our sense of self, which in turn offers more ways to feel confident. But at its worst, beauty campaigns can be about "fixing" people, reducing us to awkward bundles of problems to be solved, and this has contributed to a deficit of body confidence in our culture that has now become a crisis.
It’s easy to fall foul in the industry, as Dove has shown recently.
Until its recent line-up of packaging that reflects varying body types, Dove has been a true catalyst for positive cultural change through so many channels, from TVC to brilliant global educational initiatives.
Its success proves that consumers respond with loyal and passionate advocacy when they see a brand that reflects a truer and liberating vision of beauty.
Dove’s vision of body confidence is about being true to your natural body, to your genes – or as they would put it, "real" beauty.
It ends up reducing femininity to simplified beauty types to be picked from the supermarket shelf and in the process reinforces the idea of limitations.
But that’s just one narrative in the vast conversation around body confidence. Beauty brands such as Mac or Illamasqua that celebrate drag artist makeup or role play are very far from Dove’s vision of "real beauty", but they equally promote feeling comfortable in our skin.
The problem with the recent Dove campaign is that it failed to take into account the context of the touchpoint and environment in their commitment to represent "real beauty". It ends up reducing femininity to simplified beauty types to be picked from the supermarket shelf and in the process reinforces the idea of limitations.
There are ways soap packaging could possibly be used to communicate body confidence – for instance, through elevating sensory cues like smell or touch to invite consumers to show their body love.
All brands create and shape culture – there’s no separation. Brands are part of culture, whether they consciously attempt to be or not. The most powerful brands are the ones that know this, and shape culture with clear intention.
It’s crucial that brands understand that often there is a gap between intended meaning, and how that meaning is received by others. Often, this is tied up with the cultural context of where the message appears, and understanding that the content can take on a life of its own and be passed around and re-appropriated.
Of course, this effect is infinitely more significant in the age of social media.
Brands need to take responsibility for how campaigns are understood in their cultural context. To create sustainable cultural change, it’s just not enough to simply announce a body confident campaign. Brands need to build that sense of confidence into every interaction and decision.
The way brand teams talk to each other, to agencies, to models is hugely important – what language do they use in a casting brief? In consumer segmentation? Does that language build confidence or a deficit? These factors help ensure the body confidence message doesn’t slip into gimmick territory, or become reductive.
Brands concerned with shaping identity – which is a great many – should use every aspect of their communication and product experience to create more possibilities. Because possibilities mean freedom and diversity.
They can achieve this by looking at culture. What stories are already out there that they can learn from to expand our possible interpretations of the body?
Culture is a sprawling landscape, and body confidence can be communicated and interpreted in so many different ways. No single brand can be all things to all people, and nor should it be.
To make a culturally and commercially positive impact, brands need to know what aspect of the wider cultural conversation they fit in to.
The brands that get this right will find they can position their brand at the forefront of culture and inspire dreams and possibilities. Get it wrong and brands could find their image tarnishes in the eye of consumers.
Gemma Jones is the associate director at Space Doctors.