Stakeholder Engagement Only Works if You Stay Engaged

This post is part of a series on Stakeholder Engagement sponsored by Jurat Software.

On those occasions when I find myself in front of a television, flipping through stations, I love finding those short, low-budget commercials that small businesses cobble together. Here in the Bay Area, the spots produced by Dr. Jang and his unreasonably-smiley patients are a great example.

The commercial is silly and cheesy, and there’s probably a million ways that it could be better. But it features real people–real customers–and that’s compelling.

In 2004, Dove took a step forward with its Campaign for Real Beauty, which also featured real people (that is, not models…well, I’m not saying that models aren’t real people, but you know what I mean). The campaign featured print ads that show women of all shapes and sizes with a feel-good-about-yourself theme. It was smart and bold. More recently, the company took two steps back, with a poorly-executed print ad that connotes that white skin is better than dark skin.

Dove, through its parent company Unilever, issued a mea culpa of sorts, explaining that its intension was to convey all three women in the ad–an African American, an olive-skinned woman (one might guess Latina) and a Caucasian–have supple skin. That is to say, they convey the “after” image from the before-and-after images that hang above them….despite the fact that the “before” image of dry, cracked skin is positioned above the African American.

If this poorly-executed image was the product of a small local soap-maker, one could perhaps understand how something so ill-conceived could get the green light. But Unilever? One doesn’t need an advanced degree in cultural sensitivity training to see that the positioning of the images would be interpreted poorly. I mean, a simple redesign of the image and it probably never would have raised a single hackle.

So what’s the underlying problem here? Men. White men. Or so argues Saki Knafo in a HuffPo piece that shows that ad agencies of 2011 are about as diverse as the shop that Michael and Elliot ran on thirtysomething back in the ’80s (or, even more frightening, as diverse as Mad Men) .

Certainly, and unfortunately, Dove isn’t the only brand that, despite its size and resources, still makes marketing gaffes that not only tarnish the brand but also alienates stakeholders. But the irony here is that the brand had actually made important progress in stakeholder engagement as the foundation of its Campaign for Real Beauty, through a survey and study in which it probed consumers perceptions of beauty.

For the study, Dove partnered with Nancy Etcoff and Susie Orbach, professors at Harvard and London School of Economics, respectively, and both authors of books about beauty and societal perceptions. Good move, right?

You can read about the study’s findings here. The key lesson learned, it seems, was that women have difficulty considering themselves beautiful because of the ways in which beauty is cast in media and through advertising.

So if, say, you were an African American woman and perceived that you were being portrayed, in an advertisement, as having less attractive skin than, say, a white woman… In a world where perception is reality, that would be bad, right?

Stakeholder engagement is challenging for many companies, for many reasons. It’s costly, it’s resource-intensive and uncovers criticisms that are hard to swallow. In 2004, Dove reached out in what felt like a real and honest dialog with consumers and concluded that it needed to address perceptions of beauty straight on. In doing so, it broke new ground and cast itself as a company that could not only understand its customers, but could even improve their esteem (and, with a later campaign, the esteem of young girls).

But the key to engagement is to remain engaged. Dove unlearned its own lesson when it ran an ad that–unintentionally, I believe–served to alienate a segment of its target market that it had earlier sought, successfully, to attract.

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Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to

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