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Searching for viral impact? Try throwing away the script

A YouTube frame grab of “Dove Beauty Sketches” advertisement.

Until this year, the most famous instalment of Dove's long-running campaign touting female self-esteem was Canadian-made. The "Evolution" film by Ogilvy & Mather Toronto examined the skewed perceptions of Photoshop in fashion ads, collected hardware at ad festivals including Cannes, and re-defined the still-nascent world of online video advertising. So when another campaign saw success that blew past "Evolution," the Canadian team at Unilever acted quickly.

But it was not because of wounded pride. Unilever Canada's marketing team wanted to capitalize on the success of the new video, "Dove Beauty Sketches" – and knew that to do so effectively, in a digital world that moves on to the next thing with lightning speed, they would have to move fast.

There was good reason to want to draw more benefit out of the campaign. The video, featuring an FBI-trained forensic artist sketching women to show them how their self-image differed from how others see them, has reached more than 100-million views online across different channels in the month since its launch. In comparison, "Evolution" has reached just a little over half that in its seven-year lifespan. (On one YouTube link, it appears "Evolution" has roughly 16-million views, but companies count views across channels to tabulate these numbers. Unilever puts the viewcount at 52-million.) It decided to make a Canadian sequel for Mother's Day this month, with its long-time agency Ogilvy in Toronto, and brought everything together in just one week.

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"It takes the same time to create an ad as it does a baby. It's generally nine months from beginning to end," said Sharon MacLeod, Unilever Canada's vice-president of marketing. "There's an opportunity to be faster-moving. It means we all have to work a bit differently."

The new version featured the same sketch artist and the same exercise – creating one sketch based on the women's self-description, then a second based on someone else's view of them – but with daughters describing their mothers' beauty instead of strangers, as in the original video. It has racked up half a million views in one week. Other Unilever offices around the world have picked up the video to promote in their countries as well; it has already been translated into Portuguese for the Brazilian market.

The campaign illustrates the way that marketing in a social media age depends more heavily than ever on speed. During the Super Bowl this year, the most talked-about ad of the big game was not on television; it was a quick-thinking tweet sent out by Oreo, making a branded joke about the blackout in the stadium. For a multinational packaged goods company, this kind of marketing involves a shift in things like the approvals process for new advertising creative, and in the way they work.

"This isn't about researching things to death. It can't be scripted. It has to be authentically what people say, and authentically coming from the brand. There's a lot of transparency about that," Ms. MacLeod said.

To make the new video happen so quickly, Unilever turned to Facebook, where its Canadian fans had reacted to the original campaign. The company contacted a few fans who had commented that they would love to do something similar. It then invited their daughters to participate as well, as a surprise. Rather than wait for a time that they could gather all participants in the same place, Unilever worked with Google Inc. to connect the subjects with the forensic artist in California online, via a Google+ Hangout.

The entire campaign has earned Dove a great deal of free publicity, but it has also attracted some criticism from those who feel it sends the wrong message by telling women to judge their value based on whether others see them as beautiful. The debate has pushed more people to watch the videos, including the Canadian instalment, and Unilever has supported them with online ads and social media promotions as well. Ensuring a quick turnaround to make more of that success was part of what Ms. McLeod calls "a newsroom mentality" for marketing – a term she picked up from the team at Google.

"The pace we're moving in marketing today is exponentially faster than it would have been five years ago," she said. "I think people when they see it, they see the authenticity too. That's when you get to the real values of a company."

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