As we wait with bated breath for the new name for fair and lovely to be announced, a few things seem obvious: One, it was a move suddenly dictated from London because it just isn’t Hindustan Unilever’s (HUL’s) style in all the years we have known it to miss a beat when it comes to flawless, confident and much-researched execution of any change — especially when it involves consumers and a Rs 4,000 crore brand. In this case, HUL announced changing the name first, then announced that the new name was being legally registered and are keeping everyone, including consumers, guessing.
Two — and here’s the disappointing thing — having been unmoved by a decade-plus of Indian activists protesting about how fair and lovely was perpetuating stereotypes and condoning Indian society’s preference for fair-skinned girls over dark-skinned girls, making the latter feel less worthy, HUL now seems to have been moved in a jiffy to respond to the Black Lives Matters (BLM) protests in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe. Even more curious is that the trigger was probably Unilever’s need to not be at a competitive disadvantage against Johnson & Johnson (J&J) elsewhere in the world, however, the action was to change the name of a brand that mostly exists in another part of the world where J&J is hardly competition, and where the context of the BLM protests does not directly exist.
HUL has been maneuvering the transition from the fairness benefit for a while now, as the skincare market has educated consumers and made them more sophisticated and multidimensional in their needs. The brand has been made to evolve slowly and surely from a single focus ‘why buy me’ consumer promise of fairness to an ‘empowerment of women’ benefit (with the subtle messaging that even your skin color is in your hands to change, as is the progress you make in life) — but never letting go of the core promise of fairness/lightening/brightening. Over time, the franchise has also been expanded to include a whole slew of new products around the ‘glow’ and ‘nikhar’ promises, but always with some tagline using the word fairness.
This forced churning, like all forced churning, might even do the brand franchise good, and enable it to compete in a more mainstream manner and appeal to a wider audience. The loser in this is a whole lot of consumers who really wanted fairness. Will another company not having Anglo-Dutch lineage and large businesses at stake in the UK and the US rush in and occupy the available slot? We have to wait and watch.