How Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign from 2004 is still an inspiration for sustainable brand marketers today

We all know how big the impact of the ‘Real Beauty’ campaign was when it aired on TV in 2004. It was immediately clear that Dove understood the zeitgeist. And that the competition would have to follow quickly. The campaign is the perfect example of a marketing tipping point strategy: you change an element of the cultural undercurrent into the “new normal” and make it a competitive advantage. This forces the other players in the market to follow and causes an acceleration in an industry.

In 2024, such a tipping point strategy is more relevant than ever. Especially for marketers of sustainable brands. Because today, our zeitgeist is all about the sustainable transition and its acceleration. A number of sustainable brands are already successfully applying this strategy: Triodos in the banking sector, Hollie in the breakfast cereal market, and Allbirds in the sneaker market. And I would like to put the strategy of the latter in the spotlight.

The importance of context

Allbirds sneakers literally tell you how many kilograms of CO2e are needed to produce them. This value is now also on the labels of brands such as Adidas and Asics.

Now you might be thinking: “What does 1 kg CO2e actually mean”? That’s fair, but the same applies to 1 calorie. You may not know what it is, but you do know that you will get a belly if you consume more than 2,500 of them every day. The same applies to CO2e.

My shoes have 7.1 kg CO2e. And Allbirds teaches me as a customer that the production of a t-shirt emits 13.6 kg CO2e, a hoodie 20.2, a pair of jeans 29.6, and a banana 0.1. They give me context, a handle to understand what is a lot and a little emissions. So if I see 10.7 kg CO2e on Asics sneakers, I know that they weigh heavier on the planet than my shoes.

First aid for competitors

Allbirds doesn’t just want to encourage their competitors to be transparent about CO2e. They also want to help. For example, they let their customers know that their competitors can download their “carbon calculator” for free. This tool calculates on a granular level how much CO2e is emitted at every step in the production chain. Handy.

And this pioneering role also leads to surprising collaborations. For example, they recently agreed to Adidas’ request to jointly produce a sneaker with as small a footprint as possible.

But personally, I only really became a fan of the brand when they themselves produced a zero-carbon sneaker and made the entire process available to their competitors for free in a handbook. In short: thanks to Allbirds, every brand can now also produce CO2-neutral sneakers.

Just like Dove, Allbirds redefines the market around something that consumers care about today. They “own” it and help their competitors to follow. In this way, they cause a sustainable acceleration in the industry. A marketing tipping point strategy that I haven’t seen since Dove, maybe.

Close to me, far from activism

Do they want to become the Patagonia of sneakers with this sustainable acceleration? Not at all. They just want to make affordable sneakers that look good, feel good, and are produced with as low a CO2e emissions as possible. They are absolutely succeeding in this. Without any form of climate activism. But with an absurdly high level of transparency.

They keep their customers informed of every step, even if something doesn’t work out. In doing so, they show that they are a responsible company that is close to its customers. They know what concerns me, the Allbirds wearer.

And the result is there: the average annual growth since 2017 is 120% and since 2020, it has been profitable on an operational basis.

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