Sex… no longer sells?


Source:  (Shayon, 2015)

Branding Today

The Unilever house of brands are turning marketing strategy on its head. You don’t need to have an MBA to be familiar with the term “Sex sells”. Anyone who has cast their eyes upon a Calvin Klein billboard knows this. Sometimes we, as consumers, are hard pressed to even see the link between the scantily clad guy or girl and the product we are being ‘told to buy’.

There are numerous definitions for what a ‘brand’ is. Kotler and Keller (2014) define a brand as “a name, term, sign, symbol, or design, or a combination of them, intended to to identify the goods or services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of competitors”. Quite the mouthful! Typically brands are perceived not simply as extensions of selves but rather they help conceptualise our ideal selves (p.p. 80, Iacobucci 2013). Brands offer a promise of helping us to be who we really want to be. This is typically done in two ways. Either by consumers thinking they will be more like the remarkable individual on show, or they may be able to attract a person similar to those featured in the advertisement. Emporio Armani offer a perfect example:

Cristiano Ronaldo megan Fox Armani billboard.jpg

Source (Heald and Profile, 2011)

This risqué form of advertising appeals to basic urges and has endured for some time. Occasionally brands can also contain deeper messages. They can start conversations, invoke thought, and empower audiences. Unilever’s Dove is one such example of this.

The Campaign


Source (Shayon, 2015)

Dove’s #ChooseBeautiful campaign is one of the latest installments in their now 12 year old Real Beauty campaign. The video featured above shows  women from around the world grappling with the decision of which door to walk through: Beautiful or Average. The majority of women choose ‘Average’, feeling that society’s definition of beautiful is out of reach. Largely due to companies perpetuating the ‘sex sells’ stereotype. Unilever’s campaign is not merely picking up on some sentimental fad to hock its wares. This campaign is based on some alarming statistics. Of 6,400 women interviewed by Dove, 96% said they don’t see themselves as beautiful. The interviewees came from over 20 nations and were aged between 18 and 64 (Shayon, 2015).

The Company Behind the Brand

A ‘house of brands’ approach is a company which applies a different name for each major line product it introduces into the market. Unilever is a prime example of this with over 400 brands to its name. Other popular brands of theirs include Lynx/Axe, Magnum, Omo, and Rexona. A crucial benefit of this structure is it provides a greater deal of autonomy when compared to an umbrella approach as seen with Richard Branson’s Virgin (p.p. 82, Iacobucci 2013). Although unable to leverage off their name as they enter new markets, they are able to take more risks. A campaign challenging societal norms can be trialled with one brand, and extended into others if it is found to be successful. Unilever has done just that, as it vows to drop sexist stereotypes from all their advertisements as of 2016. As the world’s second biggest advertiser this is a HUGE deal! Their research has shown that 40% of women don’t identify with women they see in advertising. Even more alarmingly only 3% of ads feature women in managerial, professional, or roles of leadership (Sweney, 2016).

Understanding Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 9.27.44 pm.png

Source: (Cui, Liang, and Lu, 2015)

When looking at Unilever, we might be tempted into thinking “why aren’t more companies doing this?”. If sex sells, and changing society for the better also sells – why would any company choose the former. As seen in figure 1, commitment to CSR varied significantly depending on the size of the company.  It seems counter-intuitive but multinational companies stand to risk the least and gain the most from having a social message in their advertising. Maybe because they are better poised to initiate change, have greater access to the public, or maybe people are just willing to listen to them because they trust them.

Moving Forward

The small businesses of the world might sacrifice sales in trying to be ahead of the trend in corporate responsibility. However as they continue to grow they too can stray from convention, become relevant, and feel warm and fuzzy at the same time. With Unilever remaining committed to making people feel good while they continue to be relevant they can also raise the proverbial bar. Companies of all sizes are free to follow as what seems novel now becomes a new “normal”. Unilever’s approach shows profits and corporate responsibility are no longer mutually exclusive. A refreshing change it must be said in what is increasingly becoming a superficial world.

Marcus Fernandez / 213362851

The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the views of any organisation I am affiliated with.


Iacobucci, D. (2013) Marketing management (MM4) / edition 1. United States: South-Western College Publishing

Shayon, S. (2015) Choose beautiful: Dove continues real beauty campaign. Available at: (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

Kotler, P. and Keller, K.L. (2014) Marketing management – 14th edition. 14th edn. Boston, MA, United States: Prentice Hall

Heald, B. and Profile, V. my complete (2011) Barrett’s Blog. Available at: (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

Sweney, M. (2016) Unilever vows to drop sexist stereotypes from its ads. Available at: (Accessed: 27 August 2016).

Cui, Z., Liang, X. and Lu, X. (2015) ‘Prize or price? Corporate social responsibility commitment and sales performance in the Chinese private sector’, Management and Organization Review, 11(01), pp. 25–44. doi: 10.1111/more.12033.





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