Brand is Culture: A Modern Dove Case Study

From 2004’s real beauty to 2017’s natural hair

I‘m not sure where the phrase “brand is culture; culture is brand” originated.

I feel like I see it all the time. I’ll listen to panelists tease out the concept at a marketing conference. It’ll crop up in publications like Harvard Business Review and Fast Company. We’ll throw around the phrase during a team retreat, while analyzing what “on your terms” means for Tortuga.

My peers and I consider “brand is culture; culture is brand” to be a fact, not a controversial concept.

Brand is Culture, Culture is Identity

The brands we choose are inseparable from our own identities — both in quiet moments of solitude and how we project our selves to the world. Those identities are, really, just the subsets of culture with which we as consumers agree.

Personal example. Right this moment, I’m sitting at my desk from World Market, typing on an Apple laptop, occasionally fidgeting with my Essie-painted fingernails, sipping Zabar’s coffee with Califa almond milk.

This doesn’t seem like a “pics or it didn’t happen” moment but you know what? Here’s one anyway.

Those five brands — World Market, Apple, Essie, Zabar’s, and Califa — are my companions during every morning of work.

  • I bought my desk from World Market because it’s inexpensive and I had to furnish a whole apartment at once. The quality is quite good for the price. World Market: price/value-fueled loyalty. Weak ties.
  • I use an Apple laptop because I don’t want to learn a new OS… but also because I’m solidly an “Apple person.” In my circles I reckon I’d be mocked, or at least disregarded, if I didn’t work from a Macbook. Apple: loyalty driven by familiarity and group identity. Strong ties.
  • I buy Essie polish because it’s what my Duane Reade carries, but also because I realized years ago that Essie was the go-to for my generation — not my aunt’s beloved OPI. I switched as a teenager and haven’t thought about my nail polish brands since. Essie: group identity and convenience-based loyalty. Weak ties.
  • I buy my coffee at Zabar’s partially because the Vienna Roast makes my face morph into the hearty-eyed emoji… but let’s be honest, there are lots of great places to buy coffee beans in NYC. I’m a Zabar’s coffee drinker because I want to be the kind of person who shops at a famous gourmet market on a weekly basis. Zabar’s: identity driven by idealized notions of self. Strong ties.
  • I use Califa because I read an article once that cautioned against a long list of ingredients in many brands of almond milk, and how it was important to look for something solely made from almonds. Ideally without added sugar. I went down an internet rabbit hole and learned that carrageenan was allegedly the enemy (I have no idea why, truthfully) and how making nut milk at home was really what you should do but *DRAMATIC SIGH* the internet SUPPOSES that Califa is a suitable alternative. I promise Califa is the closest I get to a Goop-adjacent mindset. See? I’m even defending my identity in this stupid paragraph about a thing I buy to put in my coffee that doesn’t upset my lactose intolerance. Califa: loyalty driven by begrudging identity and also fear mongering in re: health. Weak ties.

We all know that long-term brand loyalty is intertwined with identity. Sometimes, customer acquisition is, too. I’m not pretending this is news, and I’ve already illustrated the point to death, so let’s move on.

I’m most interested in how culture plays into the relationship of brand and identity. My background is in direct response, growth hacking early stage startups, and inbound, so it’s a relatively new thought path for me.

Is it the chicken or the egg? Does a cultural movement happen first, and brands tap into them, or do brands actually start the movements?

I’m solidly team cultural movement → brand. I don’t think brands create movements. I think they give a larger voice to something already present in society. Sure, they fuel the movement, but don’t give them credit for starting something revolutionary.

The brands that do it right embody that movement and structure their product strategy (not just positioning) to support it. The integration of product development and brand story is great, but it has to be rooted in the right story. Something meaningful that is at the forefront of current culture. New and now.

I Feel Weird Talking About Movements, Culture, & Brand Without Mentioning Dove Circa 2004

Probably because I started college in 2008. It often felt like Dove 2004 was the singular obsession for my marketing professors during that time.

In fact, I’d wager that most university marketing courses in the late 2000s taught the Dove “real beauty” campaign as a case study. Along with that DeBeers installment with the dead roses and everything Volkswagen has done since the 1960s.


I remember the dead roses because it was buzzy, but didn’t change the inevitability of decreased consumer spending on diamonds. DeBeers’ installment was a throwback to a former culture, not something at the forefront of a new trend. It was flailing desperation to change behavior in a beautifully designed box, not an innovative pivot or savvy insight into the current zeitgeist.

Dove, on the other hand, served us some woke-ass brand brilliance in 2004. They didn’t invent body positivity, but they were at the forefront of the discussion. They got in early. They would be (we assumed) forever associated with the discussion in a positive way. They didn’t change the world — they didn’t even change culture — but they went deep and planted their flag.

Before they fucked it up, of course.

Building a brand around body positivity was something of a revolution in 2004. Isn’t that crazy? It’s almost cliché to the point of suspicious inauthenticity at this point. As evidenced by how Dove is still clinging onto the “real beauty” campaign… and it’s not going so well.

How quickly our perception changes.

So. Dove’s body positivity campaign in 2017 is not the woke-ass awareness it was in 2004. In fact, it’s perceived as somewhat out-of-touch and behind-the-times.

It’s Time to Move On, Dove.

All hope is not lost for this campaign. They have a newer iteration that’s somewhat behind-the-scenes, at least comparatively, because their association with body positivity is so very famous. Their misguided bottles made headlines.

The new campaign is more Instagram-famous, less “household name.”

It’s about embracing your hair as-is. Teaching our children to embrace their natural texture instead of sleek-ify-ing frizzy waves or adding volume to stick-straight locks.#LoveYourHair, they’re calling it.

It’s smart, because here’s the thing: body positivity has gotten more specific and more defiant as its pervasiveness has increased in society. No longer is the discussion about loving your curves or feeling beautiful at size 2 or 12. That’s old news. It’s too general. Today, it’s specific and contextual and goes beyond shape and size. It’s direct social commentary, not nuanced.

2017’s body positivity is about skincare-centered makeup to highlight your skin, not cover it up (a la Glossier, Milk). It’s about a defiant refusal to hide “trouble areas” on the beach and simultaneously exposing the vitriolic comments women get when they dare to expose bodies with fat (see: Refinery29). It’s about expressing yourself through clothes instead of dressing to a male-focused ideal, and getting MAD when someone diminishes your intellectual worth because you enjoy the process (see: Man Repeller).

And, as Dove has realized, it’s about embracing your hair’s natural state instead of forcing it to do something else entirely.

In 2016, Dove launched the #LoveYourHair campaign with mothers, wherein they encouraged bloggers to teach their daughters to embrace the hair they have. Alyssa Hertzig’s post was most memorable for me, as her daughter Sadie’s hair is wavy and “unruly” like mine.


I spent my childhood lamenting my triangle hair and wishing that Garnier’s Sleek and Shine could actually make my hair sleek and shiny. It can’t. My lion’s mane is destined to be bushy.

Alyssa wrote, in her post sponsored by Dove,

I am determined that my daughter will love her own hair. I tell her all the time how beautiful it is, and I always want her curls to look even curlier. When we get her hair cut, we ask the stylist to trim it with layers that encourage the curls, and when I blowdry her hair, I twist it in a way that coaxes those curls out. Sometimes she wears it straight, too, but in those moments, I’m very careful with the language I use to describe her hair. Her straight hair isn’t better, it isn’t more polished, it isn’t prettier. Straight is an option, not the ideal.
And I’m working on me, too. I may not be ready to wear my hair completely natural yet, but I’ve been experimenting with some curlier and wavier styles. (And I’ve been loving them!) And I never complain about my hair in front of her. I’m learning to love my hair, because I love my girl.

I read that in December 2016. I thought it was a beautiful thing to teach a child, especially her point about language. Because I’m guilty of using self-vilifying language about my own hair in its natural state.

I used to “tame” my own curls every morning. I’d “fix” the front pieces in particular, changing the wave pattern to be less random. I’d smooth it down to look less “crazy.” I’d say that my heat-styled curls were more refined, more sophisticated, more professional, more put-together than the “bedhead” that is my natural state.

Alyssa Hertzig’s post got me thinking about my words, but Alina Gonzales changed my morning routine.

Influencers gonna influence.

Alina worked with Mark Townsend, a renowned hairstylist and (I presume) Dove ambassador. For several days, her Instagram stories were all about air drying and rocking your waves exactly how they felt like waving, without heat or scrunching or manipulation. Of course, one of the essential steps was to use a Dove product.

I watched her stories religiously. Nobody had ever taught me how to air dry, how to make the most of what’s already on my head. I felt like I was re-learning how to shower in a way that was tailored specifically for embracing my appearance rather than doctoring it.

I realized, then, that Dove was tapping into another iteration of the “real beauty” message. One that fits with the modern woman’s love of comfort and authenticity and convenience, in stark contrast to a polished facade.

And so I tried it.

Selfie on the left: smoothed curls, “refined.” Selfie on the right: also refined, dammit, just with natural hair instead of spending 30 minutes with a curling iron changing my wave pattern ever so slightly. SIDE NOTE: whole lotta desk selfies in this post, huh?

It was uncomfortable for a little while. Kind of akin to the semi-shameful feeling of running errands in sweatpants or skipping eyebrow waxes. I felt like I was cheating the system, or being lazy, or that I looked far too scruffy to walk the streets of NYC.

Not anymore. Now, I feel modern and stylish instead of lazy and scruffy.

I’ve started to notice that women I admire approach their hair with a Dove-approved perspective. Man Repeller’s Haley Nahman and Harling Ross rarely smooth their locks, instead embracing their wavy-curly realities in all their glory. Alina Gonzales, of course, does whatever the fuck she wants in such a cool-girl way. Laurel Pantin doesn’t explicitly talk about natural hair, at least not that I know of, but she presents an inspiring visual example.

I’m of course giving examples of women in the media with hair like mine, but there are so many great natural hair proponents for non-white women as well.

None of those women are consistently selling Dove products to the masses. Their hair narratives have almost nothing to do with the brand. It’s not about Dove suddenly giving women permission to ditch heat styling, it’s about the changing culture and Dove’s injection into that conversation.

Dove isn’t creating it, but they’ve started to tap into the movement.

I think they should quietly retire their focus on body shapes (is it really helping their brand? I doubt it) and pull this new campaign to the forefront. Move on to the iteration that feels current instead of clinging to the same message of the mid-2000s.

A Note on Direct Conversion

Though I’ve followed Dove’s brand story for a long time, I don’t currently use their products. I doubt I’ll start, either. Their touchpoints inspired me to change my hair routine from a philosophical perspective, which is a pretty great brand moment, but it hasn’t translated to consumer loyalty.

I wash my hair with whatever my hairstylist gives me at the salon. I don’t know the brand off the top of my head, but I’ll continue to buy at the salon instead of at the drugstore. I don’t use Dove’s air drying spray, either — I use Davines’ version in conjunction with their sea salt spray (one of my all-time favorite products).

I suspect, however, that I wasn’t Dove’s target in the first place. At least not for a purchase. People who typically shop salon brands only occasionally try drug store alternatives, and rarely commit to them. I might pick up a Dove styling product out of curiosity, but I’ll probably return to my beloved Davines after the dalliance has run its course.

Dove is likely banking on the “high tides lift all ships” mentality as it relates to natural hair. The more culture shifts towards embracing, not changing, what you have, the more that style permeates every consumer. Drug store buyers enter CVS and see “sleek and shine” next to Dove’s emphasis on “you do you, girl.” If culture rewards the latter, then Dove wins, because they’re a part of that conversation. They’re in the back of the consumer’s mind. They’re part of the zeitgeist, if not the driving force.

Even if I’m not their customer. It’s not, after all, about me.

Header photo: Sebastian Tiplea on Unsplash