We’re in brand purpose hell again this week. And the flames are burning higher and hotter than usual. 

This week, Gillette decided that what men really need in 2019 is not just a clean shave and an aspirational brand image. Oh no. The brand, owned by Procter & Gamble (P&G), decided that what will keep men buying Gillette is being told they are not good enough and they need to improve. 

First, a couple of important and obvious disclaimers. Toxic masculinity is something that should be addressed wherever it’s encountered. Men must take responsibility for their own behaviour and those of their peers in ensuring it does not continue to afflict society. Terry Crews, who makes a brief cameo in the ad, is a hero of mine not just for what he has put up with but the manner in which he has responded to it. He is the definition of masculinity in my opinion and I stand with him and all those intent on ensuring Me Too has an enduring impact. 

Second, I do not think this is the worst bit of the purpose wank we’ve been exposed to over the past few years. Unlike Heineken trying to solve all society’s ills by asking people to ‘Open Your World’ or Starbucks claiming its mission is to ‘inspire and nurture the human spirit’, you can see what Gillette’s marketing team were thinking. It’s mistaken thinking. But there is an almost logical line running through the mistake that suggest this is an enormous tactical failure rather than a mistake born of strategy.

In fact, if anything, the strategy part makes sense. This is classic brand revitalisation territory. Gillette’s 30-year-old tagline, ‘Gillette, the best a man can get’, is one of the most famous and impactful slogans of recent history. But as with all things it can get old and dusty over time.

When the slogan debuted, the best a man could apparently get was a hot wife, a sports victory and (this is true) a career as a space shuttle pilot. Such were the dreams of the ’80s. Thankfully, much has changed. The retention of the slogan deserves plaudits. And so too does the attempt to link it with a different, more contemporary vision of masculinity. 

This is similar to what Nike and its award-winning Colin Kaepernick ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign did for its ‘Just Do It’ tagline. Gillette is attempting to take an ancient and highly distinctive slogan and revitalise it for a new era. When you pull this off, you achieve a quintuple branding whammy of retaining a billion-dollar asset (the slogan), shedding all its ancient baggage, dressing it in new cultural clothes befitting 2019, attracting a new generation of customers and generating a pile of on-brand publicity to boot.  

But the difference between Nike and Gillette is as glaring as that between night and day. Nike used the authenticity of Kaepernick, the pathos in his voice and the positivity of his message to inspire customers with an aspirational message that attracted them and then propelled them to purchase. Gillette’s ad feels like a tedious, politically correct public health video – the kind of film we were forced to watch in school about road safety before they invented the internet. Never mind making me hate Gillette, it makes me feel bad about pretty much everything. 

This could have been a win for Gillette. A less heavy hand. A less preachy tone. A more inspirational message that real men, the kind who use Gillette, behave better and stand for change.

Feel-bad message

Gillette opted to use Kim Gehrig, one of a new generation of directors showcased by the Free the Bid campaign, which attempts to hire more female directors into advertising. Again, with such paltry female representation across creative departments, Free the Bid is a noble and important venture. But Gehrig stumbles badly here.

Rather than a work of inspiration and aspiration she delivers a short film that feels vindictive and accusatory. We are not being shown the better path, we are being told we are all on the wrong one and must change course immediately. Men are to blame. You, yes you. It’s a poor way to sell razors. Hell, it’s a poor way to sell anything. 

And the proof of that poverty is in the social media pudding. Since the ad was posted yesterday (14 January) on Gillette’s YouTube channel it has received more than two million views. Thus far the like to dislike ratio is running 10 to one against the campaign. More worryingly, the sheer number of dislikes – one in every 10 people who have seen the ad went to the trouble of clicking the thumbs-down button at the time of writing – suggests a vehement dislike unusual for such a big brand with this kind of major campaign.

There is a special place in marketing hell for companies that invest money into things that ultimately make their situation much worse.

I’ve never seen that kind of negative engagement before. “It’s crucial to make the customer feel bad from the outset and then throughout the ad if you intend to sell to them effectively,” as David Ogilvy never wrote.

Despite becoming such a talking point, Kaepernick’s Nike ad enjoyed exactly the opposite social media response with its like to dislike ratio running 10 to one in its favour. And despite its enormous cultural impact, divisive message and four months of air time, Nike’s campaign has only managed to generate a 10th of the dislikes on YouTube that Gillette has achieved in just 24 hours. Trouble.  

The qualitative comments below the ad on YouTube should make for salutary reading for Gillette too. If the team are able to get off their high horse and listen to their target customers for a few seconds they will quickly appreciate that they have a branding crisis on their hands, all of their own making.

“Harry’s razors are cheaper and available at Walmart for the same or a better quality shave…keep politics out of our grooming habits,” was one plaintive response. “Not buying any more. A company making billions from male grooming products trying to shame men for being… men?” was another well-liked retort.  

Most people who proclaim they will never buy a brand on social media soon forget their digital sentiment, return to their low involvement heuristic purchases and all is forgotten. But these comments also provide a bellwether for just how badly Gillette has misjudged its campaign and its customers. Scrolling through the bile from Gillette’s proclaimed former customers this week must surely strike a chord of horror among Gillette’s branding team.  

A suicidal move

And those really are Gillette’s customers commenting on YouTube by the way. Again in contrast to Nike, Gillette still has the dominant share of the shaving market. Sure, Dollar Shave Club has made some nice headlines in recent years but Gillette still enjoys, or rather did enjoy until this week, a 50% market share in America and even more in the UK.

Nike knew it would anger some customers with its Kaepernick ad but it also knew these soon-to-be-enraged customers were the ones buying less sportswear, looking much worse in it and possessing far more price sensitivity than the segment it targeted with the ad.

And Nike had nowhere near a 50% share of any of the categories it competed in. From t-shirts to jogging bottoms to running shoes, there was much more to be gained than lost from its risky Kaepernick ad. Gillette, conversely, was sailing a big 50% boat and suddenly decided to rock it, badly. “All you had to do was be quiet and sell razors. RIP Gillette,” as one YouTube comment put it yesterday. 

Of course, that’s the one thing you won’t see much of in Gillette’s new ad: razors. Among all the sanctimonious hectoring and evil masculinity on display in the ad there is very little room for any reference to shaving or Gillette. Nike’s campaign was not just aspirational, it actually showed Nike products in action throughout the two-minute spot.

That initial skateboarder that opens the ad, the refugee playing for Canada’s national football team, the cheerleader who became a linebacker, the best basketball player in the world – they were all shown engaged in sport and, remarkably, all wearing Nike while doing it. Imagine! 

 

Gillette has plenty of tearful mothers, bullies, disillusioned teens, obnoxious executives and sexist bozos at parties. But with the exception of the retro clip of the original ’80s ad and a half-second at the end of the spot, there are no razors and no mentions of Gillette. Sure, we have lots of men contemplating the error of their ways – presumably in a bathroom mirror. But none pick up a razor and no mention of Gillette is made.

Instead, viewers are directed at the end to Gillette’s website where they can learn more about the cause and revel in the discovery that Gillette, which last year generated in excess of $6bn in sales, will donate $1m to non-profit organisations intent on improving men this year. Wow.   

There are two ways to measure the toll that this dreadful ad will take. The first is the simple opportunity cost of taking Gillette’s American advertising budget and blowing much of it on this purpose-driven piffle at the expense of something more positive, persuasive and actually featuring the product and the brand itself. Usually this opportunity cost is measured in the millions of dollars, but that is usually the end of it. 

But in Gillette’s case there is a bigger price to pay. There is a special place in marketing hell for companies that not only waste their marketing budgets but actually invest that money into things that ultimately make their situation much worse. That’s going to be the cost of this foray into brand purpose for Gillette.

It has spent its own money to make its still excellent commercial situation indelibly less positive at a time when it can ill afford the misstep, given the many alternatives vying for its sales. And for that we should stand back and appreciate what might turn out to be the worst marketing move of the whole year.