The evolution of Dove

As Dove celebrates its 50th anniversary, strategy examines how the brand has evolved from a bar of soap to a global master brand. Along the way, we look at how messaging to women has also evolved over this pivotal period in women's history

As Dove celebrates its 50th anniversary, strategy examines how the brand has evolved from a bar of soap to a global master brand. Along the way, we look at how messaging to women has also evolved over this pivotal period in women’s history


It was the patriarchal era of suited, Brylcreemed men smoking cigarettes, and perfectly groomed housewives eagerly flitting around with a feather duster – at least in the eyes of the media. Most advertisers of this decade approached ‘the weaker sex’ with the condescending notion that they spent their days dreaming about new household appliances or preening themselves to please their husbands.

When Lever Brothers’ original Dove ‘beauty bar’ first hit the U.S. market in 1957, ad messaging took a slightly different approach from the norm, focusing on the notion that Dove was ‘much better for your skin’ than soap due to its mildness and its content of ‘one-quarter cleansing cream.’ Taglines such as ‘Suddenly soap is old-fashioned!’ and ‘Dove creams your skin while you wash’ pushed the product’s point of difference, together with its novel curved shape and simple blue-and-gold packaging featuring the original dove bird logo, which still appears on packaging today.

Black-and-white newspaper ads were used alongside the era’s new media, TV – all created initially by U.S.-based Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather for Lever Brothers, then an American and Canadian subsidiary of Unilever, which formed in 1930 when Lever merged with Dutch co Margarine Unie. Many of the ads featured the image of cream being poured into the Dove bar to emphasize its moisturizing quality – another signature Dove image that remains a staple today.

One of the earliest print ads pictures an ecstatic woman reclining in a tub (fully covered by soap suds, of course), holding a Dove bar in one hand and a telephone receiver in the other. The display copy reads: ‘Darling, I’m having the most extraordinary experience….I’m head over heels in Dove!’ In smaller copy, the woman continues to gush at length about her ‘positively gorgeous’ bathing experience in an amusing, over-the-top monologue: ‘Dove makes me feel all velvet and silk, all soft and smooth. Just the most pampered, the most spoiled, girliest girl in the world. Darling, I’m purring.’

During its first decade, Dove advertising focused mainly on the facial benefits of the product, with the introduction of the Dove Face Test campaign. Print ads and TV spots typically showed a close-up of a woman’s face as she washed half in Dove and the other half in regular soap, to promote Dove’s non-drying benefits. ‘Try the Dove face test and soon you’ll never wash with soap again,’ reads the tagline in one such spot. At the time, Dove was offered in a plain white bar or a lightly scented pink bar.

Then, as now, advertisers often used celebrities to endorse beauty products. Curiously, Groucho Marx’s unmistakable mug was one of many famous faces used in Dove’s TV ads during the late 1950s and early ’60s.

In 1964, Ogilvy & Mather won the Dove account in Canada, although advertising during these early years was adapted from the U.S.


Following the feminist movement of the ’60s, more women started to enter the workforce and control household spending, leading advertisers to rethink the methods they were using to reach an increasingly important market segment. Advertising to women was no longer restricted to food, clothing and household products. And as women gradually began to be portrayed more in professional roles, many advertising taboos began to be broken.

Tampons and sanitary pads became ubiquitous in mainstream media by the mid-’70s, for example. And in 1969, Wonderbra aired its first ad using a live model as opposed to a plastic mannequin. Previously unrecognized, women also became an important untapped customer base for car repair dealers during the 1970s.

Virginia Slims cigarettes launched its famous female-targeted campaign in 1967 with the tagline: ‘You’ve come a long way, baby.’ In the print ads, sepia-toned photographs of glum 19th-century women were juxtaposed with colour images of cheerful, cigarette-smoking modern gals.

In the late ’60s, Dove first began to use ‘real women’ in its advertising. The testimonials, supposedly made before a hidden camera, continued the strategic focus on the brand’s non-drying benefit into the 1970s. The success of this campaign was such that the face-test spots were discontinued.

This was a transitional period in which women began to break free from the shackles of the kitchen sink to flaunt their hot pants, although the need for male approval still lingered, as demonstrated by one 1971 Dove spot created by Ogilvy in the U.S. ‘Dinner Party’ shows a forlorn-looking woman serving drinks to her party guests, trying to be noticed as her husband chats merrily with a younger woman. The voiceover reads: ‘Somewhere between the vacuum cleaner and the kitchen sink you got older, and it shows…You can help your skin look younger. Change from soap to Dove.’

Another series of spots developed in the U.S. in 1975 featured a fictional beautician, ‘Liz,’ who demonstrates the power of Dove to her dry-skinned customers.

And it was during the ’70s that Ogilvy produced the first unique Canadian work, continuing with the ‘real women’ testimonial format developed in the U.S.


The 1970s workforce equality movement triggered some sexual role reversal, and by the end of the decade the beauty industry’s traditional object-of-desire/external approval-driven positioning also reversed, to be replaced or augmented by more self-fulfillment-centric positioning, featuring youth, status and fantasy.

The ad team at Ogilvy continued to strengthen its original message that Dove won’t dry your skin, adding research to back up the claim. In the late ’70s a series of spots was created around a ‘seven-day test’ in which several women would appear one after the other, claiming that ‘After seven days with Dove my skin feels softer’ and that ‘It simply can’t dry your face the way soap can.’

At this time the Dove cream-pouring image continued to anchor the spots, but the tagline changed from ‘one-quarter cleansing cream’ to ‘one-quarter moisturizing cream,’ in keeping with women’s lotion worship, and the beginning of multi-purpose product. The packaging was changed slightly during the early ’80s to a primarily white box with blue writing and a gold dove symbol.

In 1979 an independent study found the Dove bar to be milder than other leading soaps. This finding was used in a number of print ads, with messages such as: ‘Dermatologists have put something unusually strong in this skin cleanser. Their trust.’ This was the first time a scientific finding was used in Dove advertising, indicating a gradual shift in the way women were addressed.

One black-and-white print ad produced by Ogilvy in Canada during the early 1980s shows seven female faces pressed closely together. The tagline: ‘Put your best face forward with Dove.’ Smaller copy describes how ‘dermatologists found Dove to be mildest and in a class by itself.’ It goes on to recommend that women ‘Try Dove for seven days’ to discover its benefits, thus combining the format of the seven-day test with a medical endorsement.

The seven-day test was used until 1987.


As witnessed in movies like 1988′s Working Girl and 1997′s My Best Friend’s Wedding, women had it all, and if they didn’t, were quite happy to take it. No longer content with her one-dimensional role, the ‘superwoman’ character portrayed by many advertisers of this decade juggled a career with cooking, cleaning, raising kids, going to the gym and driving a super-fast car, all while maintaining her sex appeal, of course.

In the ’80s, women in advertising moved from equals to aggressors. One 1987 print ad for Harley Davidson motorcycles shows how some advertisers were starting to ally themselves with the feminist mindset. It features a confident woman straddling her Harley. The tagline: ‘I Am Woman. Hear Me Roar.’ Smaller copy states: ‘A woman’s place, we all know, is wherever she wants it to be.’

Curiously, it was during the era of grunge that Dove started its global rollout, opening up to markets in 55 countries by 1994. By 1996 the brand was selling in over 80 countries and testimonials of non-believers converting to Dove were translated into numerous languages.

In the late ’80s the testimonials evolved to the use of just one woman, giving a more detailed account of how Dove has improved her self-esteem as well as her skin. One such spot features ‘Jean Shy,’ who talks about a compliment she received on her skin after using Dove – the first sign of a shift towards promoting inner beauty.

The now famous ‘Litmus test’ spots began in 1991, taking the brand one step beyond the dermatology ads of 1979 by offering visual, scientific proof of Dove’s superiority. TV spots and print created by Ogilvy & Mather’s Toronto office used Dove’s low alkalinity as a selling point. The ads show close-ups of other soaps with litmus-paper readings of pH9.9 compared to Dove’s pH7, which is neutral and closer to the pH of skin.

Messaging such as ‘Do you really need the alkalinity of a household cleaner to wash your face?’ and ‘Dove is mildest. Bar none,’ had the desired effect, and the ads went worldwide.

In 1995 Dove made its first foray outside the cleansing bar category with the launch of moisturizing bodywash. This was supported by a sampling program in Canada as well as national TV and print featuring members of Canada’s synchronized swimming team.

‘The Dove team at Unilever has always had a really strong appetite to do things differently,’ says Janet Kestin, co-CCO at Ogilvy Toronto, who began working on the Dove account in 1991 and was part of the team that spearheaded the ‘Litmus’ campaign. ‘Even back then we did a lot of things that were not classic use of media.’


The Internet era opened up a whole new world of advertising opportunities with the launch of beauty websites, online purchasing and viral campaigns. Female representation is closer to reality, and women are being targeted in most market segments, though, some experts feel the age of sexist advertising has yet to end. Ogilvy’s Kestin comments: ‘There is still a lot of advertising around that could have run in the ’50s.’

Dove launched a slew of new products in the late ’90s: deodorants, body lotions, cleansers and shampoo. Hand- and face-care products followed in 2003, taking Dove from a single product to an entire beauty brand.

Following a global remit to widen the perception of beauty, Dove Canada created its own coffee-table book and travelling exhibition in which female photographers were invited to submit work portraying their idea of beauty.

Led by the Canadian market and aiming to challenge traditional stereotypes of beauty, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty website launched in 2004. In support, tick-box billboards, created by Ogilvy on a global scale, rolled out across Canada. They featured pictures of everyday women along with two choices that consumers could use to interpret their beauty, such as ‘Fat/Fabulous?’ and ‘Withered/Wonderful?’

Toronto-based media agency PHD took the campaign one step further by erecting LED display boards in high-traffic locales in Toronto, inviting people to call a toll-free number and vote. The results were displayed in real time, and the idea was later picked up in the U.S.

Body lotions and hairstyling products hit the market in 2005, and in Canada the Dove Self-Esteem Fund was launched to combat eating disorders. Outreach efforts by Harbinger Communications and programs created by promo agency Capital C, both of Toronto, boosted consumer interaction with the brand, the Real Beauty platform and the Self-Esteem Fund. ‘Our office is responsible for a global remit on the Self-Esteem Fund,’ says Aviva Groll, account director for Dove at Ogilvy Toronto. ‘It’s a result of the work we’re doing locally that we’ve been asked to play a role on the global stage.’

A personal wash line called Cool Moisture launched in 2006, together with handwash products, supported by a travelling photo exhibit in Canada.

In October 2006, Dove’s ‘Evolution’ viral film, created by Ogilvy Toronto, was first released on and later on YouTube, and went on to become the hottest viral in the world within days. The film, which demonstrates the unrealistic portrayal of beauty in the media, scooped Grand Prix awards at Cannes Lions 2007 in the Viral and Film categories.

Another of Ogilvy Canada’s viral films, ‘Onslaught,’ hit the site in October, provoking debate on self-esteem and body image by displaying a shocking torrent of media pressure juxtaposed with the innocence of little girls. The message, ‘Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does,’ says it all.

On the same site is the film ‘Amy,’ in which a teen boy calls a girl who won’t come out of her house. ‘Amy can name 12 things wrong with her appearance,’ reads the tagline. ‘He can’t name one.’ In a twist, it allows the viewer to change the name the boy calls out, and forward that version to a friend.

According to Sharon MacLeod, marketing director for skincare products at Toronto-based Unilever Canada, the Internet will continue to play a bigger role in the marketing mix. ‘It makes the brand accessible to people whether they’re in Saskatoon or Montreal or Toronto,’ she says.

Though the Dove bar remains unchanged and the non-drying strategy continues to sell the product, today’s brand markets itself as a social activist. The latest OOH campaign invites people to send positive text messages like ‘Luv ur :)’ – translation: ‘love your smile’ – to friends. The success of the marketing is evident, as Dove is currently the world’s number one cleansing brand, with sales of over $2.5 billion U.S. a year in more than 80 countries. ‘Fifty years ago, women were just looking at product benefits,’ says MacLeod. ‘Today they want to affiliate themselves with brands that are doing something good.’


Half a century of evolving beauty trends – in context:

1959: Fidel Castro comes to power in Cuba, evoking both praise and condemnation; a new invention called pantyhose – praised by women, condemned by girdle manufacturers – comes to department stores

1969: Man lands on the moon; Wonderbra airs first ad with live bra model – a lesser-celebrated giant leap for mankind in the annals of anti-gravity

1973: The world’s first successful gene-splicing takes place; Bonne Bell debuts Lip Smacker, a scented, flavored lip gloss – less significant than genetic engineering perhaps, but nonetheless a breakthrough in the world of cracked lips and human interaction

1985: Scientists discover a hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic; a Californian dermatologic surgeon fills a hole in the cosmetic market with the ‘Tumescent’ liposuction technique, allowing fat removal under local anaesthetic; liposuction popularity expands rapidly, ditto ozone hole

1995: The DVD media format is announced, and is guaranteed to bring a clearer picture to your screen; in another attempt at de-fuzzing, the FDA clears laser hair removal

2002: As man’s quest to explore the unknown continues, NASA’s Mars Odyssey space probe begins to map the planet surface; in support of the female quest for eternal youth, the FDA approves Allergan’s Botox for the smoothing of furrowed brows – if we can’t live on Mars, at least we Earthlings can look less worried about everything