How to develop new language to communicate sensitive issues

Talking about skin tone should be easy. But brands get this wrong, for example, calling white skin ‘normal’. So how should you explore the social context of skin tone and its language? And how can you build engaging comms that avoid the pitfalls of sensitive topics?

We used digital ethnography with our target to get a picture of how their skin tone affected their confidence and behaviour, and we carried out face-to-face ethnographies to dig deeper into these insights.

We know that much of what these women knew and felt about their appearance and skin was influenced by their mothers/family. We therefore brought them into the conversation. This helped build a bigger picture of the social context and pressures of these women. It also pointed to how attitudes were shifting.

To bring to life how these women talked about the change in skin tone, we used a pantone scale to see how much their underarm skin tone varied from the rest of their skin. This gave us an insight into the emotional impact of skin tone. We saw that even smaller differences in tone created huge anxieties around their skin and visualising it in this way helped to extract the language they used to describe this change.

This approach revealed new insights, providing Unilever with the confidence to build a ’lexicon’ of consumer-led language and insights for distinctive and relevant comms.

1. Use friends and family in your interviews to explore social context and tensions.
2. Use semi-structured visual tasks to tease out hard to discuss topics.
3. Include a face-to-face stage in your methodology to get closer to emotional territories.