Unilever to Rename Fair & Lovely Skin-Lightening Cream Amid Criticism

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Dove soap maker to drop words such as ‘white’ and ‘lightening’ across its portfolio, responding to criticism amid antiracism protests

Unilever  PLC said it would change the name of controversial skin-lightening cream Fair & Lovely, one of its top-selling personal-care brands, amid mounting criticism that it suggests light skin is more attractive than dark.

The owner of Dove soap, Axe deodorant and Hellmann’s mayonnaise on Thursday said it would drop the word “fair” from the brand in the next few months and stop using the words “fair,” “fairness,” “white,” “whitening,” “light” and “lightening” for all its products. It didn’t disclose a new name.

“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, Unilever’s global head of beauty and personal care.

Unilever stopped short of halting sales of Fair & Lovely—as some critics had called for—opting instead to continue selling the same formulation under a new name. The company said that, despite the name, Fair & Lovely—Unilever’s largest personal-care brand in India—has never been a skin-bleaching product. It said the brand uses sunscreen, vitamin B3 and glycerin and is designed to improve firmness, smooth texture and improve the skin’s barrier properties.

Unilever’s climbdown is the latest by consumer-goods companies facing criticism about brands and marketing viewed by some as racist. Those moves have picked up pace with antiracism protests, fueled by the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis last month, among other events. Johnson & Johnson recently said it would stop selling skin-lightening products under its Clean & Clear and Neutrogena brands. PepsiCo Inc. said it is retiring the Aunt Jemima brand of syrups and pancake mixes, while Mars Inc. is changing the name of its Uncle Ben’s rice.

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Unilever’s decision to rebrand the 45-year-old skin-lightening cream shows how the pressure for companies to scrap or overhaul brands is increasingly spilling outside the U.S.

Fair & Lovely generates annual sales of more than $560 million, largely in countries such as India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. It is also sold in Africa and the Middle East and is available in specialty stores in the U.S. and Europe. Unilever is a big advertiser in many of these regions and its marketing of the brand has long been a target for critics. The company hired Bollywood stars and celebrities to endorse the cream’s benefits, while television adverts showing the prospects of glum, dark-skinned women transformed after using Fair & Lovely, drew accusations of racism.

Criticism of the brand has stepped up in recent weeks, with several online petitions calling for Unilever to scrap the product gaining thousands of backers. The company has also faced criticism from its own employees in recent town-hall meetings, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Mr. Jain on Thursday indicated Unilever would overhaul its advertising around the brand, saying it would “feature women of different skin tones, representative of the variety of beauty across India and other countries.”

The company said it would change the name after it secures regulatory approval in the countries where it sells Fair & Lovely. In South Africa, the product is branded as Even and Lovely.

Unilever has struggled with perceptions of the brand for decades and in the early 2000s began shifting its marketing to focus less on changing a woman’s physical appearance and more on imbuing her with confidence. Last year, Fair & Lovely stopped using longstanding visuals showing a dark face turning light. The name, until now, had remained a sticking point given how widely recognized it is in many markets, according to a person familiar with the matter.

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