Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with Unilever or associated brands. These are just my thoughts on a heated debate.
Sometimes, it’s hard to get people to talk about selling to the Base of the Pyramid and looking to the emerging markets as a source of revenue. I think the latest BoP debate between CK and Aneel Karnani is fascinating.
For the uninitiated… Unilever is a large company. A very, large company.
They produce fast moving consumer goods across multiple markets.
The same company that makes THIS:
Also makes THIS:
The first campaign is the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. It emphasizes that women are naturally beautiful and their skin car products bring this beauty outward. Thus, women are beautiful when they age (yielding a line of products called pro-age). I particularly think this little video snippet is interesting, and I think has made the rounds on Youtube.
The point to take away from the Campaign for Real Beauty is that Dove is a progressive brand, and they want to make women feel good about themselves (and sell more product).
Now, let’s look at the emerging markets, such as South East Asia. The product that Unilever offers in this market is known as Fair & Lovely (second campaign shown above). It is a skin lightening cream that has received lots of fire lately, from BoP critics. (CK mentions Fair and Lovely in previous case studies as an example of BoP merit). Whereas proponents argue that the whitening cream helps its consumers portray a positive image, critics posit that Fair & Lovely engenders race bias (In places like India, fair skin is deemed more attractive. See this set of interesting facts from another blogger). As he also points out, India’s “fairness industry” accounts for 60% of skincare sales and $140 M in revenues.
Check out the commercials from Fair and Lovely that run in India.
The question then becomes how can a company that is so progressive in their marketing campaign towards the developed world… offer products that are essentially taking advantage of cultural race bias?
There are a few reasons. First of all, I want to start out by saying that I do NOT believe that Fair and Lovely is the best example of a BoP product that successfully *improves* the situation for people. In fact, the question whether Unilever sells F&L to these markets is of complete irrelevance– that’s an ideological question. Companies have been peddling their useless diet products in the United States and developed world for several decades now, and no one seems to be up in arms to stop them.
Unilever has a set of corporate values that influence their managers to make decisions about what product lines to sell. These decisions are still largely based on cost-benefit analyses and ROI methodology. (And why not? That’s how managers are incented). Social values differ from region to region, and our social consciousness is evolving here in the developed world in unprecedented ways (So much so that I sometimes think that Dean Cornish’s altruism wildcard might just come true).
The fact that Unilever is serving BoP markets with the access to products– and more importantly EDUCATION and means to a social ladder by providing social entrepreneurs in villages the chance to be an intermediary (wholesaler?) of products is fantastic. The net social impact of Unilever paving the way for other organizations to enter and offer catered services is positive. Eventually, products like F&L won’t be sold in India and many other countries. But until then, I am pleased that profits from the purchase of this brand will help invigor thought into more productive ways to serve humanity.
I’m interested in corporate social responsiblity and the evolution of enterprise (I am brewing a post on this subject that will be up here soon). Tangentially related to corporate responsibility is the notion of consumer responsibility. How does one, as a product designer, inventor, or entrepreneur create platforms that create infectious positive social behavior?
The universe of consumers is dramatically larger than the universe of producers. So much of product design and development is focused on understanding what users (consumers) need, and then synthesizing a solution that addresses the need. It can’t always be about what users “need” in the near term. In the big-picture-long-term-view, we ALL need more sustainable ways to transport ourselves and our goods than we currently have. Whose job is it to educate consumers about this need? And, once they’re educated, don’t the producers have to deliver alternatives? Alternatives that may, at first, cost more than the conventional product… but alternatives that are differentiated to be superior in the consumer’s mind.
A potential solution might be the company that causes all its consumers to think differently about reducing, recycling, and reusing their products in different ways. We could take a step back and think about companies that might foster constructive (e.g. entrepreneurial) behavior in its consumers. What if the longevity and sustainability of the company actually depended on their consumers behaving in a certain way? Well this already happens to a certain extent (customer evangelism like Apple fanboy sites), but it doesn’t necessarily have a positive social benefit all the time.
Design thinking is evolving to “get it”.