Media Perspective: Brand values must mean something to win over customers

One of the recent triumphs of the marketing and branding arts has been Dove and its Campaign For Real Beauty.

Bold strategic thinking and insightful executions, which have struck a chord with many. Dove has successfully connected itself to global concern about the excesses of the beauty industry and put itself in the middle of the debate about the unrealistic and exploitative portrayal of women in advertising.

A similarly admirable campaign is the energetic, larger- than-life masculinity of Lynx (also known as Axe in many places). Again, there's a smart strategic vision, and the creative work is inventive and original. Lynx has tapped into a young male attitude that's not afraid to take pleas- ure in images of beautiful, sexy women in ridiculously revealing clothes.

Both brands have been given very clear positionings. You get a real sense of world-view, of purpose, of mission. You can imagine the world headquarters of both Dove and Lynx, the kind of people who work there, their values, their beliefs. So I know what Dove believes in, and I know what Lynx believes in. I just have no idea what Unilever believes in. Because, of course, Unilever is responsible for both Dove and Lynx. And the values it has attached to Dove and Lynx are inherently contradictory: you can't imagine anyone in the real world espousing both. While I suspect there was a genuinely felt spark of purpose and mission in the origins of the Dove work, it's been swamped by the built-in contradictions of a multibrand organisation.

Because I'm not saying that anyone's done anything particularly wrong here, we've all found ourselves in similar contradictions. It's just that the branding model we all work with - the idea that a brand can be constructed as a fictional entity, appropriating whatever values seem convenient and relevant - doesn't work in the age we're living in. Our customers are smart and informed, information is easy to get and people are coming more and more to care about the origins of the stuff they buy. If you're going to claim big, meaningful values, you're going to have to live them, not just assert them.

I don't know if huge numbers of Dove consumers are troubled by this contradiction. Probably not. It's probably not as big a deal as I'm making out, but it's a conversation that's wandering around the blogosphere, and when I told a friend of mine about it, she said she felt fooled by Unilever. Society has raised the bar on us again, they want us to mean what we say and, perhaps more significantly, what we imply. Hopefully, this'll mean some serious conversations in brand-owning boardrooms, as they work out if they actually, personally, believe in the values they're espousing.