Selling Soap In The Era Of Social Media

Apr 25 2014, 5:32pm CDT | by

Now that the old, one-way channels for making wild promises and inventing emotional associations for brands have been blown up or discredited by the technologies that enable conversations instead, at least one product category faces a dire challenge:

There’s not a lot to say about soap.

I mean, who wakes up in the morning hoping to engage in a conversation about it? Our era’s marketing conceit is that everyone does, since technology lets us feel closer and more involved with brands. Yet the jury’s still out on whether this is true generally and, if so, how particular brands with very little to say can hope to thrive.

There’s no better example of this conundrum than Dove, which has pioneered the creation of topics about which consumers can converse.

The company saw the writing on the net in 2004: Social sharing would make it harder for the brand to rely on promises of making people attractive, reversing the flow of time, or other emotional payoffs with no basis in fact. Its Campaign for Real Beauty hit that disconnect head-on by actively encouraging its customers to ponder their self-images and expectations for the products they bought. It was brilliantly creative and, more importantly, it seemed authentic. It prompted lots of conversation, at least among the wags who converse about such things.

But did it sell soap? The answer to that question depends on your a priori beliefs about the purpose of social engagement.

Marketers who don’t rely directly on the work to keep their jobs challenge the premise that a dialogue about an issue, however important, can substitute for the promises of benefits and emotional associations that traditionally prompted purchases. Folks who believe in an innate value for conversation argue that the campaigns make all of Dove’s other marketing tactics more authentic and, therefore, more effective, whether measured by sales or intangibles of affinity. Or they say that sales aren’t the goal in the first place.

During the past decade, its competitors, and other products within the broad category of personal care, have continued to struggle with these different perspectives, though far less notably, with programs ranging from the same old promises of special ingredients that did miraculous things, and campaigns that swapped abject creative hilarity for the slightest effort to share any real purpose for buying a product, to massive theme-focused programs, like P&G’s celebration of Moms.

Now, Dove has added to its effort with a campaign called Patches, in which it claims it duped women into thinking a sticker on their arms would make them beautiful, and that, subsequently, they reported heightened confidence in themselves anyway (so the punchline is that beauty is internal, not something you can buy). This message not only is devoid of any sales merit, but it indirectly declares that nobody really needs Dove or the promises of its products. The predictable buzz has included wags pontificating on it, and at least one parody video.

But it’s still no clearer now that the campaign is prompting conversation that anybody really cares about or, more pointedly, does anything useful as per any financial measure not invented to prove its usefulness; rather, it’s another example that loads of experimentation and competition with social media hasn’t revealed what, exactly, soap brands should talk about.

Other brands face a similar challenge, though the question gets a little easier when products (or their use) get more complicated, thereby providing more topics at least somewhat connected to functionality that might warrant conversation.

My bet is that now that we’ve changed the purpose of marketing communications from declaring to conversing, we need to change our definition of brands, from creative constructs to business truths.

Instead of reaching far afield to come up with things to propagate via social platforms, maybe brands could reveal more about the people and operations behind whatever it is they sell. After all, if Dove is so committed to women’s empowerment and self-image, don’t you wonder if it has programs to encourage female-owned suppliers? Are its employment policies particularly enlightened on this front? Is it politically active in defending women’s issues, or give away real money, not just marketing spend, to philanthropies that benefit them? Are there women on staff who have done amazing, inspiring things?

Is Dove really different on this topic?

If so, the opportunity would be to configure and communicate these business realities (or any others), and not try to invent them. Give people more truth about its business, and not just more branded content. If Dove focused more on the real part, and less on the beauty part, maybe the brand would be not only find things to talk about, but the content would relate to purchase decisions.

Then, the point of conversations about soap could be about reasons to buy it.


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