Hindustan Unilever (HUL) has finally decided to get rid of the 'fairness' proposition of its top-ranking brand, Fair & Lovely, after years of backlash for promoting colourism and racism. The 50-year-old brand in its communication had been equating fairness with success for decades. Yet, it has been the FMCG major's most popular beauty brand, especially in the rural markets. Walk into any kirana store in small town India, Fair & Lovely is the most ubiquitous brand. Fairness cream market in India is worth Rs 10,000 crore and Fair & Lovely has an over 80 per cent market share. Though the upper-class Indian women rubbished it as a racist brand, it's promise of fair skin in flat six weeks struck a chord among women in the heartland, where there is a profound stigma attached to dark skin.
Fair & Lovely will soon have a new, more 'inclusive' brand identity. This move comes shortly after J&J announced that it would discontinue its fairness products. However, it is unlikely that these steps would reduce the demand for fairness creams in India. The fair skin obsession is not restricted to small town India. Walk into any salon or spa in a city like Mumbai or Delhi, skin whitening or brightening treatments are the bestsellers. "I don't think demand for fairness cream will go down any time soon, as the cultural bias for fair skin in a country like India is not going to change overnight," agrees Alpana Parida, Former MD of design-led brand consulting company, DY Works. Fairness is indeed an obsession in India, with several popular Bollywood lyrics also equating beauty with fairness. "From Jaya Prada's Gori Hai Kalaiyan to Jacqueline Fernandez's recent dance number, all of them romanticise fair skin. The obsession is ingrained in our minds," points out Communication Consultant, Surajit Guha.
Kannan Sitaram, Venture Partner, Fireside Ventures, believes that a change in brand name will not necessarily mean that people will stop using the brand. "There are talks that they would replace the phrase gorapan (fairness) with nikhar (brightness). However, the brand for decades has stood for fairness, that is the widely used perception which will not easily change just because the brand is using a new phrase." Guha agrees with Sitaram's point of view. "Even if the name or brand proposition changes, it's unlikely that the company will change the chemical component of the product. Consumers will still use it as a fairness cream." he further adds.
Sitaram cites the example of Pond's talcum powder which the company had always promoted as a brand which stood for freshness and fragrance, however, 70 per cent of Indian used it on their face as make-up. "Consumers discover a brand and do what they want to," he explains.
While the country's obsession with fairness is unlikely to fade away anytime soon, Lloyd Mathias, Angel Investor, Business & Marketing Strategist, says that it is a good opportunity for HUL to revamp the brand. "I think they will keep the element of the packaging and colour while changing the proposition. At the same time, they will stay clear of controversy and make sure that there is nothing in the brand that will connote colour. It will be a more inclusive vision of beauty," says Mathias. "They can continue with the confidence proposition, but they need to emphasise on the fact that confidence isn't about skin colour but about healthier skin," Mathias further adds.
However, Parida feels that the reinvention exercise would be challenging. "As a brand I can see its demise, unless they are able to reinvent in a way that they stand for something so much more significant. Their entire narrative has been fairness equals to success and that's how the brand has been communicated. They will no longer have unique proposition. Rightly or wrongly, 'fairness' was their unique proposition."
Will Fair & Lovely minus the fairness promise be able to woo Indian consumers? Let's wait and watch how HUL gives it a new lease of life.