Unilever Plc plans to rename Fair & Lovely, a melanin-suppressing face cream that’s one of its best-sellers in India, as the backlash against branding that trades off racial stereotypes spreads beyond the U.S.
The Anglo-Dutch conglomerate, which derives more than $500 million in annual revenue from the brand in India alone, will also remove the terms “fair,” “whitening” and “lightening” from Fair & Lovely’s packaging and marketing material and feature women of all skin tones in future advertising campaigns. The brand is also sold in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, Pakistan and elsewhere in Asia.
Triggered by incidents of police brutality against Black people, the Black Lives Matter movement has gained traction around the world and spurred companies to reassess their businesses and marketing for signs of discrimination. Johnson & Johnson said last week that it would retreat from its skin-whitening business, which includes the Clean & Clear Fairness brand in India and its Neutrogena Fine Fairness line in Asia and the Middle East.
“We recognize that the use of the words “fair,” “white” and “light” suggest a singular ideal of beauty that we don’t think is right, and we want to address this,” said Sunny Jain, President of Unilever’s beauty and personal care division.
The company is awaiting regulatory approvals for the new product name and expects the change to kick in a few months, Unilever’s India unit said in a statement Thursday.
Unilever’s Fair & Lovely range appeases deeply entrenched concepts of beauty in India — the company’s second largest market — where darker skin is viewed as undesirable and unattractive. Matrimonial advertisements in India’s largest newspapers routinely specify the need for a “fair” and “slim” bride.
Unilever’s move comes after it was repeatedly called out on social media in recent months for its whitening cream, first launched in 1975. Global campaigns on social media like #unfairandlovely have also been critical of beauty stereotypes since 2016.
“For years I‘ve been saying that “Fair & Lovely” needs to pack their fake cosmetics and GO!!” Padma Lakshmi, cookbook author and Top Chef host, said in a tweet earlier this month adding that it hurt her self-esteem as a young girl. “Anyone else out there sick and tired of being told that fair=lovely? Because I sure as hell am.”
Fairness creams also play off the country’s caste system –an ancient code of social stratification which prescribes how people should earn a living and who they marry in many parts of India. It views those with fair skin as superior while discriminates against those with darker skin. Popular Indian film stars with vast fan followings have also endorsed such products over the years, perpetuating these beliefs.
For some, simply renaming the brand isn’t enough especially if the product itself continues to service the same bias. “The products need to go away, they should be taken off the market,” said Mahima Kukreja, a Mumbai-based writer and activist. “Every company that’s selling products making the claim that it will make you whiter and fairer needs to go, because its telling every brown-skinned person in India that you’re not good enough.”
Unilever’s shares rose as much as 0.3% during trade in London on Thursday while its India listed unit, Hindustan Unilever Ltd., advanced 2% in Mumbai.
In Asia, where lighter skin can be associated with wealth and status, cosmetics companies — including L’Oréal SA, Shiseido Co. Ltd., and Procter & Gamble Co. — have long devoted a big part of their business to marketing creams and lotions that promise to lighten skin tones. Some refer to their products as skin brighteners instead, and promote the idea they can help hide freckles and cover dark blemishes.
More coverage on the intersection of race and business from Fortune:
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- The enduring history of health care inequality for black Americans
- The insurance case that helped end the slave trade
- Corporate Germany has a race problem—and a lack of data is not helping
- George Floyd protests force Britain to reckon with its role in slavery, leading some companies to pay reparations