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Ever since Hindustan Unilever’s Glow and Lovely dropped ‘Fair’ from its name, brand and marketing professionals have kept an eye out for communication that would follow. For a brand cemented as a fairness cream in consumer consciousness, to now convince them of its non-discriminatory stance towards skin colour is not an easy job.

With the marketing campaign for Glow and Lovely finally having rolled out, it’s time to figure how effective branded content will prove in pivoting brand image.

Created in collaboration with Indian feminist rapper Dee MC or Deepa Unnikrishnan, this music video is the first instalment in GAL’s ‘Glow Ko Na Roko’ campaign. Inspired by the rapper’s real-life story, it speaks to young women about finding their identity through their achievements and dismisses society’s appraisal of people on the basis of skin colour (‘mere rang ka na socho’).

The video feels very different from GAL’s product advertisement that barely explains the altered name and continues to feature actress Yami Gautam as the ‘fair and lovely’ prototype.

But why the schism between branded content and product ad when the brand has clearly highlighted the new path it is going to take?

Ultimately, the business tries to find the middle ground

Like all companies today, global corporation Unilever is faced with the challenge of running its business in sync with progressive messages it’s expected to endorse as an influential body. Especially this year, with the Black Lives Matter movement, it was forced to choose between appearing colourist and letting go of sales in countries like India. The name change to GAL was its way of finding the middle ground and appeasing both sides.

But the conundrum doesn’t end there. Even within India, Unilever has to face an anti-colourist minority vocal on social media while it simultaneously caters to its core user base. Having been stretched between the two, it has seemingly envisioned content as the means to soothe digital audiences.

Does the strategy work?

Rap as a genre: A force-fit for GAL, not yet an authentic brand voice

As some of the first communication to follow the name change, it makes sense that the music video with Dee MC explains what it means by glow, expanding it as the glow of confidence and success.

Keeping in line with this progressive thinking, it incorporates all the common signs of political correctness. It features women from diverse backgrounds, with varying appearances and skin tones.

It says the right thing about every individual being essentially the same (‘har rag me daude jo uska rang toh ek’), speaks about women in relation to achievement rather than appearance (‘naya daur, nayi pechan, bane kaam se mera naam') and urges them to accomplish their goals ('pure ho iraade, khud se yeh vaada').

There is also an emphasis on authenticity, both through the use of real people rather than models and movie stars and through reliance on rap, an art form associated with being upfront. Of course, rap also lends itself to other meanings. Its strength of delivery helps assert what feels like a sharp and sudden shift in GAL’s brand image. It equates girl power with being badass and not caring about what others think of you. And very obviously, it appeals to Indian youth, especially since the release of Gully Boy.

Sounds like a workable content formula till you consider the piece in the brand’s context.

GAL’s current position rests on uncomfortable truths it is trying to navigate without upsetting any of the cultural stakeholders; a detail that makes its choice of expression – rap, known for being honest, raw and bold – seems ironic.

The music video doesn’t acknowledge the real reason for the change. It doesn’t address the brand’s long history as a seller of fairness creams. All it does is have the word ‘fair’ flicker out from the brand’s name to be replaced by ‘Glow’, right at the end.

Overall, it doesn’t feel like the brand has found its own voice through the content piece (another key aspect of rap) or evolved the visual and verbal signs of progressiveness for its own purpose, but more as it has simply adopted the formula learnt from culture to tick the right boxes for the anti-colourist crowd.

What about the fairness cream as a product in the brand’s portfolio?

The brand’s original purpose was for their cream to make women fairer, as established by its old ads that showed women receiving better life opportunities as their skin grew a few shades lighter.

Now, having adopted an anti-colourist stance, aligned to the current cultural context, promising fair skin is seen as a harmful goal to have and the brand is promoting the glow of confidence instead. But there are already numerous facial products in the market that promise to make you glow.

While the change in brand image and the release of this music video are a step in the right direction, by recasting the meanings the brand is based on, it has perhaps brought the relevance of its product into question.

Moreover, despite the progressive outlook it has taken in the video, its products will continue to sell to its core base with the same purpose, no matter the changed articulation (‘glow’, ‘even tone’, ‘skin clarity’ and ‘radiance’ instead of ‘fairness’, ‘whitening’ and ‘skin lightening’).

How does that work if the meaning that emerges from its video, presumably an articulation of its new brand purpose, its new brand vision — your skin colour/appearance doesn't matter, your capabilities and hard work do negates the reason for the product's existence, i.e. grow fairer and hence better looking?

Branded Content, Thematic Advertising and Product Advertising – tools to pull off complex balancing acts in messaging to multiple and diverse audiences

Big brands have begun to see branded content as the bridge between their woke audience online and the on-ground world of business. And when wielded well, it does work for them.

But content by itself, or any communication for that matter, can’t overcome the limitations of a dichotomous vision. Nor can it suddenly inject new meanings into the minds of consumers as per the brand’s requirement.

Consumers have imbibed cultural meanings at the same pace as marketers and are, therefore, perfectly capable of spotting inconsistencies in communication, even if they are sometimes unable to properly articulate them. In the end, clarity and consistency of brand vision wins. GAL has some way to go.