The Unfairness of It All

03 Jul,2020



By Prabhakar Mundkur


When Hindustan Unilever announced its decision to rename its moneyspinner $500 million brand Fair & Lovely to Glow & Lovely, it was a classic case of doing too little too late.


To imagine that the decision was perhaps based on the greatest upheaval of racist stereotyping of our time with the excruciating George Floyd pinned to the ground doesn’t say much for Hindustan Unilever’s decision. There is nothing to congratulate them about.  There can be no appeasement of public emotion. There can only be guilt and shame.


Activists through the decades have objected to Unilever’s fairness cream but it needed a revolt as ugly as George Floyd’s death, for the great marketer to make this small move.  Not since Rosa Parks was denied a seat on a bus in Montgomery has the world been so affected by the colour bias of the human race.


But how good is the new name Glow & Lovely? Decades of skin care research has shown that ‘Glow’ is a major benefit in for the skin care regimen. Just like ‘Shine’ is. a major benefit for hair. So, taking a benefit from research and planting it in a brand name is perhaps not the most creative way of configuring brand names. But then Unilever has not been particularly known for its creativity. That lesser brands like Emami had already pre-empted this thinking by naming their brands Glow & Handsome is a bit of a shame. After all, one expects leaders to show the way. Not follow in the footsteps of their smaller competitor in the FMCG business.


But is Glow and Lovely a good name?


 There is a reason why Glow and Lovely doesn’t sound right given the vagaries of the English Language. The reason why it doesn’t roll of the tongue as easily as Fair and Lovely has to do with the English language. Both Fair and Lovely are adjectives. Glow on the other hand is either a verb or a noun depending on how you use it. Glowing & Beautiful would have sounded better in English. Because Glowing is an adjective. But it then lengthens the brand name. And Unilever might have decided they would stay close to the current syntax. Anyway to the large majority of Indians it would hardly matter. It’s just another name for Fair & Lovely. Fair and Glow are both four-letter words. But how the name changes the advertising need to be seen. Will the new ads have dark and glowing faces to make amends with the brand’s past? That is anybody’s guess.


How Darkie changed its name


It may interest people to know that the exact opposite of Fair & Lovely existed as a toothpaste in Asia many decades ago. A toothpaste called Darkie. Produced by Hawley and Hazel, the brand was very popular in Asia. The pack showed a smiling black performer. The brand was then acquired by Colgate Palmolive which faced a lot of racist flak on the brand. In 1989, Colgate Palmolive decided to change the brand name to Darlie.


“It’s just plain wrong,” Reuben Mark, chairman and chief executive of Colgate-Palmolive, said about the toothpaste’s name and logotype. “It’s just offensive. The morally right thing dictated that we must change. What we have to do is find a way to change that is least damaging to the economic interests of our partners.”


Seems like a shame that another global company had thought about this so deeply more than 30 years ago. So Unilever in many way is 30 years too late.


 What will posterity say about Fair & Lovely?


 But what this would mean for the generations to come is anybody’s guess.  Will Generation Alpha which may use the brand a few years from now warm up to the brand given its history? (Generation Alpha is the demographic cohort succeeding Generation Z. Researchers and popular media use the early 2010s as the starting birth years and the mid-2020s as the ending birth years.)


How will these young people see our racist past? One piece of research showed that Generation Z are as racist as their millennial parents. But will this continue on to Generation Alpha? Technology is likely to change a lot of mindsets in the future. And that may change the fortune of the brand called Glow & Lovely.


Prabhakar Mundkur is an advertising veteran, a lateral thinker, storyteller and musician. He has spent several years in advertising – in India and elsewhere in the world – including at JWT China where he headed the Unilever business, amongst other functions. In fact he worked on Unilever brands for a good 17 years… though never on F&S ;-). A prolific writer now, he was LinkedIn’s #1 Top Voice for 2016 and YourStory’s 100 Emerging Voices 2018. He writes frequently on MxMIndia.

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