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Image: Dove’s Real Beauty bottles: the idea of translating different body shapes – from thin to curvy – into plastic is crass. Photograph: PR Company Handout

What is real beauty? A newborn baby? Kate Moss? A gently melting brie? It’s a question that toiletries giant Dove has been pondering for decades. Posing it has made its owners a mint, too: last year, valuers Brand Finance estimated the Unilever-owned company to be worth $4.1bn (£3bn), making it the 10th most valuable beauty brand in the world.

However, recent developments have tarnished its reputation as one of the few beauty brands that felt as if it was on a woman’s side. Even though its Real Beauty bottles – made to reflect the diversity of women’s body shapes – aren’t going into production, damage limitation is impossible in an age of Facebook and Twitter memes. We may never be able to buy them – thank God – but we all know they exist.

The question is: why? The concept – six differently shaped bottles of shower gel, designed (in Dove’s words) to “evoke the shapes, sizes, curves and edges that combine to make every woman their very own limited edition” – might have seemed compelling in an energetic brainstorming meeting, but that’s surely where it should have stayed. Packaging is one of the most important ways a brand communicates with its customers, and translating a bunch of different body shapes into plastic is crass. As one Twitter user pointed out: “The Dove bottle with my body type hurts my feelings.” And therein lies the rub: allowing customers to “choose” a bottle that mirrors their body shape is the opposite of empowering. Suddenly, shower gel is as fraught with body-image dilemmas as their jeans purchase.

On women’s side? Dove’s Real Women campaign, shot by leading fashion photographer Rankin.
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On women’s side? Dove’s Real Women campaign, shot by leading fashion photographer Rankin. Photograph: Dove/PA

How did a brand that has always got it so right suddenly get it so wrong? When Dove launched in 1997, it was an anomaly; a soap that claimed to moisturise, with the audacity to charge four times the average price. But it was only in 2004 that it really distinguished itself. Its Real Women campaign, devised by Ogilvy & Mather, shot by leading fashion photographer Rankin and featuring six ordinary women in their underwear, was an early example of hashtag-heavy femverstising, a precursor to campaigns such as Pantene’s #ShineStrong and #LikeAGirl from Always. However dubious the concept of female empowerment for commercial gain, it worked: within a month, sales of Dove’s firming cream had doubled. In the minds of its customers, Dove had established itself as a purpose-driven brand – with a purpose more commendable than most.

After assuring us it loved women of all shapes, colours and sizes, Dove swiftly moved on to make money out of – sorry, support – other traditional areas of female insecurity. Working on what cynics might call a proviso that you’re never too young to need salvation via a shampoo, 2006’s Daughters video discussed body-shaming, bulimia and self-loathing via a series of interviews with young girls. Meanwhile, in 2007, Dove released Pro-Age, a product range aimed at older women via a TV ad featuring highly attractive, centrally casted specimens from the genre (tagline: beauty has no age limit).

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Dove’s 2006 Daughters video.

Over the years, it’s fair to say that Dove has never rested on its laurels. Once won, its market share has always been aggressively – and, on the whole, imaginatively – defended, albeit in a way that is perhaps best described as a thorough, 360-degree approach to exploring female insecurity. But it wasn’t until 2013’s Real Beauty Sketches film that Dove scored its most impactful success since its campaign began. Highlighting women’s penchant for self-criticism by showing them flattering artists’ interpretations of themselves, the film packed an emotional punch that quickly sent it viral: within a week of its release, more than 15 million people had watched it online.

Given that the beauty industry has traditionally spent millions making women feel bad about themselves in order to then sell them products to make them feel good, any messages of positivity are surely no bad thing. Is Dove cynically exploiting the real girls and women it is purporting to help? No more than the rest of them. All brands want us to buy their products. Few have any scruples about how they do it. We know this, which is probably why we feel so well-disposed towards those who appear to care – and so dismayed when they let us down.

But back to the original question. What is real beauty? Clearly, not a bottle of shower gel. Possibly, the ability to be at peace with yourself – your unbuffed, product-free body – without needing to draw your self-worth from a pear-shaped bottle. And if that’s too hokey for you, well, a nice brie is pretty beautiful, too.

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