news_0018_Layer 21

Is the Protein World "Beach Body Ready" UK billboard Ad Merely a Storm in a C-cup?

For the past several weeks, a large yellow poster advert has appeared across the London Underground network promoting a very slim woman in a bikini, asking passengers “Are you beach body ready?” – prompting a significant social media storm about the advertiser, Protein World, and their “weight loss collection” supplements.

While it’s a fact that engaging consumers via billboard ads is difficult, this brand has had no problems eliciting emotional responses to the provocation that women who are beach body ready should look like the model in the ad.  Increasingly, women of all ages – but especially younger women – are pushing back against the fashion magazines and retail brands targeting them with imagery of the female body that they see as unrealistic and, in their opinion, visual merchandising created by men.

Engaging with your critics is as vital as engaging with your supporters

The lessons from the Protein World debate for international marketing leaders must include the commercial payoff for good listening and engaging with those who disagree.  Arjun Seth, the company’s CEO, revealed in a recent press interview that all publicity is good publicity.

But is it?

With over 40,000 people signing a petition to remove the Protein World ad, it’s indicative of a deeper trend: young women taking control over how beauty is to be defined.
Unilever-owned skincare brand Dove understood this even a few years ago by launching their “real beauty” campaign (image above) to highlight that there is no one definition of beauty, which has been profoundly successful for this brand and its resonance with women of all ages, but especially those who are young.

Investing in international market research

Dove is a great example of why, in an increasingly global marketplace, investing in high-quality international market research is vital for building a winning marketing formula as is understanding how corporate diplomacy is vital in a world of empowered and connected consumers. Protein World’s adverts will no doubt continue to attract controversy but, at the end of day, it is the consumer who will ultimately decide if Protein World is a brand with they wish to engage with.


Image courtesy of Dove, Unilever

BBC Sheffield Interview with Allyson Stewart-Allen Transcript


Toby: Allyson Stewart-Allen is a marketing expert and the Chief Executive of International Marketing Partners Limited. Morning, Allyson.

Allyson: Morning, Toby.

Toby: This is an interesting advert. I can't help but feel, and this is the cynic in me, that this is amazing publicity this morning for an advertising run that was just coming into the end of its budget. They've done very well out of this haven't they?

Allyson: You could say they've done well out it. Although, one of the things that's very interesting is this deep sentiment amongst young women and maybe women of all ages but, generally, it tends towards younger women about body image and having brands tell them how you should look. Now if Protein World had a better sense of that demographic they should've predicted that they would get the backlash that they've been having. They are trying to position the…

Toby: Is this a backlash? What would you have paid to be in every newspaper today with...the David Moores column is saying it's not their fault, it's society's fault.

Allyson: Don't know that blaming "society", which is a very large amorphous group is not necessarily the answer. And I think if I were advising Protein World, I would acknowledge and advise them that they need to acknowledge that there is a significant minority who are not happy having brands telling them how they ought to look. And you're seeing it in women's magazines, you're seeing it here with the vandalism of several of the ads on London Underground, you're seeing it through the social media comments on Twitter and a number of other outlets, so they have to listen. And although the Chief Executive has said, "Once we get to a million signers of the petition, I will then listen," that's not really engagement. And as a Chief Executive, whether you like the negative opinions out there or not, you need to take them onboard. You need to listen, and you need to perhaps acknowledge that this noisy significant minority can have a significant impact on your brand. And dismissing that minority is actually not the way you get your brand heard and sustained for the long term.

Toby: Then again he's not. He sells protein powders. He's not selling to the kind of people who will sign these petitions on the internet is he? The truth being that advertising run, London Underground, has run for three weeks and is due to be taken down today. It smacks to me as an incredible piece of PR.

Allyson: Yes, it is an incredible piece of PR but not necessarily for the right reasons.

Toby: Yeah.

Allyson: And if you're alienating a significant number of women who control their spending on beauty products and that number are vocal and influential and know how to use social media and know how to mobilise petitions and set up a petition, file complaints with the Advertising Standards Authority. These aren't people that should just be ignored.

Toby: Yeah but they are not the kind of people who were ever gonna buy protein shakes to lose weight to go to the beach are they?

Allyson: I don't know about that. We don't know about that actually. They are spenders. They are the potential market and to suggest that they may not be for us, let's ignore them, is not the way to do brand engagement. They way to do brand engagement is you acknowledge their concerns and you acknowledge that maybe your model is your ideal of "beach body ready" but there are a number of other "beach body" looks that are equally acceptable and interesting and fantastic.

Toby: Thank you very much indeed, Allyson. Thanks for talking to us.

Scroll to Top