The Other Side of the Rainbow: NIVEA “Doesn’t Do Gay”

The second in a continuing series

NEW YORK—It has been the talk of the advertising world since last week when the world’s third largest advertising agency FCB (the recently rebranded Foot, Cone and Belding) dropped the worldwide skincare cream brand Nivea from its client list after an alleged telephone call during which FCB was pitching a new advertising campaign which showed two men holding hands: The corporate response: a marketing executive at brand owner Germany’s Beiersdorf, was said to say, “We don’t do gay at Nivea.”

Not long after, FCB resigned the account, presumably in support of its ad managers and the LGBTQ community. In a memo from FCB Global CEO Carter Murray, he wrote:

“There comes a point in every longterm relationship when you reflect on what you’ve accomplished together and set your sails for where your journey will take you next,” Murray stated in the memo. Sometimes that journey ahead demands tough choices that lead down different paths.” According to Gordon, who assumed his current position in 2013, “ the decision follows ‘much reflection and discussion on our creative ambitions.’ 

“It is my hope that in reflecting on the incredible journey we’ve had with Nivea around the world and in your markets, you take pride in what we accomplished together and come to respect the many difficult factors we had to carefully weigh to take this step.”

While Nivea’s worldwide advertising budget is close to $300 million, the amount that the skin cream line spends in the US is under $22 million, and represents a loss of income to FCB of about 1%, a figure that Gordon anticipates will be easily replaced through the corporate giant’s many other accounts.

The backlash to the idea that, “we don’t do gay at Nivea” has gone viral on the Internet with consumers posting pics of discarded jars and bottles of the cream in the trash.

 

For its part, Beiersdorf Global AG did not respond to LGBTQ Loyalty’s request for comment on the homophobic allegations. While not directly addressing the specific incident, a spokesman for Nivea did release a general statement.

“We are an international company with more than 20,000 employees with very different genders, ethnicities, orientations, backgrounds and personalities worldwide. Through our products, we touch millions of consumers around the globe every day. We know and cherish  that individuality and diversity in all regards brings inspiration and creativity to our society and to us as a company,” the spokesman said. 

Nivea also stated that, “We understand that emotions and news interest are intensified when a longtime business relationship comes to an end – however, we ask for understanding that we don’t comment on unsubstantiated speculations around this matter.”

Continuing to grow, the controversy has now morphed into a discussion of how much control an agency should have over a company’s plans for its own product image. Those on the corporate side are insisting that the final word belongs to the corporation that makes the product, while ad agencies are circling its wagons around the philosophy that suggests that its vast marketing survey programs have a better grasp of the evolution of industry markets, and can adapt quicker than a megacorp whose wheels typically are slow to react to industry subtitles.

FCB first opened for business in Chicago in 1873, when Ulysses S. Grant was President, under the corporate name of Lord & Thomas. The company name was changed to Foote, Cone and Bending after three of its managers bought out the company in 1943. Emerson Foote ran the New York branch of the company, Fairfax Cone headed up its Chicago head office, and Don Belding  was located in Los Angeles.

Lord & Thomas began representing Nivea cream in 1911 when it was initially imported into the United States as the first stable water-in-oil emulsion for the skin.

In support of the company-wide statement on Nivea, LGBTQ Loyalty Holdings found that ads aimed at the LGBTQ market were first introduced into the Nivea marketing lineup in 2003, with Nivea for Men, a new line aimed generally at males, but specifically at gay men.

“Gay men are the most sophisticated men in terms of appearance and grooming,” said Joe Venezia, product manager of Nivea for Men, at the time. Venezia wasn’t making up the facts but was quoting FCB’s creative staff who felt a push into the mens market through introduction to gays would yield $20 million domestically by 2003, winning over straight men later through gay men’s early influence, according to Marketing in Rainbow.

Despite the name of the new line, Nivea took a very conservative approach to marketing the new product, basically through reworked ads that replaced female models airbrushed with male ones. 

It wasn’t until FCB took the major step of advertising directly in gay publications, specifically in PlanetOut that the transition to the LGBT market became obvious.  According to Marketing in Rainbow, “In the summer of 2004, a targeted marketing campaign on the web sites Gay.com and PlanetOut.com led to a dramatic increase in brand awareness among gay men for Nivea for Men. An online advertising campaign was set up and the goal of the campaign was to show an overall increase in aided brand awareness, online ad awareness, message association, gay community support, brand favorability and purchase intent.”

FCB even went directly into the locker room last year for a Nivea for Men advertisement featuring openly gay Figure Skater Adam Rippon and straight Dolphins’ Wide Receiver Danny Amendola discussing shaving body hair.

But apparently that was the ad that put Nivea over the edge, and prompted FCB to fight back with the account resignation.

According to Asad Dhunna, director of communications for Pride in London, told The Drum newsletter that it was heartwarming to see a business choose between morals and money.

“This will be a huge morale boost to staff (at FCB),” he said. “All too often people go back in the closet or are afraid to come out to their clients, so for the agency to have their back and resign the business sends a really strong signal.

“It shows how far we’ve come for LGBTs rights within the world of advertising and also sets an example for other agencies to hold their clients to account.”

Richard Hack is an award-winning author and journalist; and an outspoken advocate for equality in business and government, as well as neutrality in news media.

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