The Sunlight Way and the Dawn of Brand Communities – Source of the Month (December 2023)

“Oh! please listen to what I say —

For comfort and ease

And your husband to please,

Wash all your clothes in The Sunlight Way.”

Mrs Howard, Keston, Kent. Progress magazine, November 1900, p. 592.

The ‘Sunlight Way’

The above verse is more than advice on laundry. It reflects a new discourse made possible by the advent of the company magazines. Lever Brothers, the soap manufacturer that later became Unilever, promoted Sunlight Soap as more than just product. It was presented as a lifestyle, known as ‘The Sunlight Way’. This was not just an advertising approach for external audiences but, as this blog post will explore, a key element of its internal communication strategy.

In 1884, Lever Brothers began selling Sunlight Soap, the world’s first packaged, branded laundry soap. Fifteen years later, the company began the Progress staff magazine which, from its very first issue, promoted The Sunlight Way to the employees. In the May 1900 issue, an article described a backyard demonstration conducted by a District Agent (a company’s sales representative) called Harrison, who organised a practical showcase of the soap’s effectiveness. Harrison explained the soap’s composition and demonstrated its use in real-life scenarios from washing dirty cloths handed to him by onlookers to getting children to wash ink stains off their hands using Monkey Brand, an American soap product that Lever Brothers had bought in 1899.

Taken from Progress magazine, July 1900, p. 419.

Similarly, the June 1900 issue describes window displays in Rotterdam that compared the old-fashioned and new ways of washing. The emphasis on efficiency with the use of ‘little water, little tub, and little soap’ depicted a low-labour task that was convenient for the modern lifestyle of the new century. Lever Brothers aimed for their staff to have a strong understanding of their products. The July 1900 issue had a conversation between the boastful Mr Monkey Brand with Miss Sunlight. Their comments conveyed the distinctive qualities of each soap, with the hope of fostering brand awareness among the staff and creating an emotional connection with the use of characters.

Discourse on the Lifestyle

Lever Brothers bolstered the message of The Sunlight Way by trying to initiate a discourse among its own sales staff. This was not simply a case of employees repeating the messages of effectiveness that they had been told, but also offering their own expertise on the use of Lever Brothers’ products. December’s Source of the Month is an article from the very first edition of Progress in October 1899 called ‘New Uses for our Specialities’. It is fascinating because it is an early attempt at using this new channel of communication not simply to disseminate information from above, but to initiative a conversation between users.

The article sees the company’s District Agents sharing their personal expertise on the diverse ways in which Lever Brothers’ products could be used. It is revealed that Sunlight Soap served well as a harness paste and a solution for preventing sore feet on a railway. Although the company’s other products did not have a lifestyle name like The Sunlight Way, the same article also initiated a discourse around their application.  For example, regarding Lifebuoy Royal Disinfectant Soap, a product launched in 1894 during a cholera outbreak, District Agents spoke of using it to relieve weak eyes, treat facial sores, and cure the skin condition ‘barbers’ rash’. The abrasive quality of Monkey Brand was advocated for cleaning both stained velvet and putty knives. Swan White Floating Soap, meanwhile, was recommended for cleaning brown boots and enhancing the gloss of starched clothes in laundries.

Throughout the magazines, District Agents are quoted individually for their expertise, but this article stands out for its attempt to create something resembling a conversation around the product. Lever Brothers was presenting itself as more than just an employer of soap manufacturers. It was trying to use its new internal communication channel to facilitate a discourse around health and wellbeing. This served not only to advertise their products’ versatility, but also fostered an attachment to the product among the staff. It offered an opportunity to contribute to a discourse, share experiences, and demonstrate wisdom and creativity.

Parallels in the StriVectin Cosmeceutical Community

There are striking parallels between this discourse in the opening issue of Progress magazine and those that have been observed in a more sophisticated form in twenty-first century online communities. A seminal article by Schau, Muñiz, and Arnould (2009) on how brand communities create value for members examined how users of the StriVectin anti-aging cosmetic product exchanged advice and tips with each other on how to use the product. The most immediate similarity is that both the manufacturers of Sunlight Soap and StriVectin presented the products as not just commodities but a lifestyle. Just as Lever Brothers spoke of The Sunlight Way, StriVectin’s tagline of ‘Better than Botox’ overtly presents it in opposition to alternative lifestyle choices.

In both cases, the discourse extended beyond conventional advertising, inviting users into a shared narrative. Just as Lever Brothers initiated discussions on soap techniques among its District Agents, StriVectin fostered an online community of customers where members could share insider information and personal testimonials. Topics of discussion ranged from applications, grooming practices, and customisation techniques. The emphasis in both instances was not just on what the product does, but on how it gets integrated into and enhances the user’s broader lifestyle. Users were invited to go beyond functional instructions and share their wisdom, creating a sense of attachment to and ownership of the product.

The use of this strategy by companies has evolved over time and there are certainly differences between past and present practices. In the 1899 Progress magazine, the quotes come from District Agents whose identity remains anonymous, with the focus being on their experiences. StriVectin community members, by contrast, actively engage in the community, not just to share practical knowledge but for the social and cultural capital that they gain as an individual within the online community. The sharing of insider information, tips, and testimonials in the StriVectin community becomes a means for individuals to establish themselves as experts, an element of the discourse that is incompatible with anonymity.

Another notable difference is the target audience. Lever Brothers’ techniques and lifestyle tips were aimed at an internal staff audience, the very reason it has been discussed in this blog. It was about fostering a brand community within the company and turning employees into brand ambassadors. In contrast, StriVectin’s lifestyle tips and techniques are directed externally, creating a public-facing community with the aim of projecting their expertise and experiences to a wider audience.

Conclusion

From the very first issue, Lever Brothers had a clear strategy for how they wished Progress magazine to be used to promote Sunlight Soap among their employees. The Sunlight Way was not just a product but a lifestyle. The magazine was a means to create a brand community. Although strategies have evolved considerably over time, the discourse among District Agents had striking similarities with the practices that we see in StriVectin’s online community. While the anonymity of those commenting meant they did not gain social capital from their participation, the involvement of users in a lifestyle discourse helped to foster a sense of loyalty to and ownership of a product. The strategies of both companies exhibit a recognition that the human connection to products goes beyond their utility and can be about identity, lifestyle, and shared narratives.

Sources

Progress, October 1899, pp. 29-31

Progress, May 1900, p. 321

Progress, June 1900, pp. 376-78

Progress, July 1900, pp. 419-21

Progress, November 1900, p. 592 Schau, Hope Jensen, Albert M. Muñiz Jr, and Eric J. Arnould, ‘How Brand Community Practices Create Value’, Journal of Marketing, 73 (2009), pp. 30-51.

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