This forced churning, like all forced churning, might even do the brand franchise good, and enable it to compete in a more mainstream manner and appeal to a wider audience. The loser in this is a whole lot of consumers who really wanted fairness
As we wait with bated breath for the new name for Fair & Lovely to be announced, a few things seem obvious: One, it was a move suddenly dictated from London because it just isn't Hindustan Unilever's (HUL's) style in all the years we have known it to miss a beat when it comes to flawless, confident and much-researched execution of any change — especially when it involves consumers and a Rs 4,000 crore brand.
In this case, HUL announced changing the name first, then announced that the new name was being legally registered (their risk assessment clearly did not show this as a possibility otherwise, knowing their formidable execution skills, they would have had a well-tested alternative name ready), and are keeping everyone, including consumers, guessing.
Two — and here's the disappointing thing — having been unmoved by a decade-plus of Indian activists protesting about how Fair & Lovely was perpetuating stereotypes and condoning Indian society's preference for fair-skinned girls over dark-skinned girls, making the latter feel less worthy, HUL now seems to have been moved in a jiffy to respond to the Black Lives Matters (BLM) protests in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe.
Even more curious is that the trigger was probably Unilever's need to not be at a competitive disadvantage against Johnson & Johnson (J&J) elsewhere in the world, However, the action was to change the name of a brand that mostly exists in another part of the world where J&J is hardly competition, and where the context of the BLM protests does not directly exist. This change of mind and heart on Fair & Lovely is not a victory for India activists; it's a reason for them to say 'Indian protests matter too'.
Will the brand Fair & Lovely get dented badly, or will the marketing genius of HUL pull this off with ease?
HUL has been manoeuvring the transition from the fairness benefit for a while now, as the skincare market has educated consumers and made them more sophisticated and multidimensional in their needs. The brand has been made to evolve slowly and surely from a single focus 'why buy me' consumer promise of fairness to an 'empowerment of women' benefit (with the subtle messaging that even your skin colour is in your hands to change, as is the progress you make in life) — but never letting go of the core promise of fairness/lightening/brightening. Over time, the franchise has also been expanded to include a whole slew of new products around the 'glow' and 'nikhar' promises, but always with some tagline using the word fairness.
Now they probably will let go of the fairness benefit and occupy the glow space more wholly, and subliminally signal, as only great marketers can, the fairness heritage or 'khandani DNA' of the renamed brand. Product formulations probably are most likely not getting dropped either.
So what's in a name? Indian consumers don't worry too much about brand names per se, they worry a lot more about brand personality, the relationship they have with the brand, and about product performance. We are after all a country where women in many parts change their given names after marriage, and mostly their surnames too.
This forced churning, like all forced churning, might even do the brand franchise good, and enable it to compete in a more mainstream manner and appeal to a wider audience. The loser in this is a whole lot of consumers who really wanted fairness. Will another company not having Anglo-Dutch lineage and large businesses at stake in the UK and the US rush in and occupy the available slot? We have to wait and watch.
Rama Bijapurkar is an independent market strategy consultant, and author of 'A Never-Before World: Tracking the Evolution of Consumer India'. Views are personal.