Mark Ritson: Gillette’s new ad will trash its sales and be the year’s worst marketing move

Gillette’s purpose-driven attempt to revitalise its slogan, ‘The best a man can get’, isn’t just a waste of ad budget but an expensive exercise in destroying its dominant market share.

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.

READ MORE: Gillette brand takes a hit as ‘#metoo’ ad backfires

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. 

READ MORE: Thomas Barta – The first rule of brand purpose is do no harm

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.  

READ MORE: Meet Harry’s, the shaving startup taking on Gillette

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.   

READ MORE: Stop propping up brand purpose with contrived data and hypocrisy

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. 

Recommended

Comments

There are 32 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Will will@shave.com 15 Jan 2019

    As usual, mic dropped. People will say I’d agree with you, and I do agree with you. The ironic weaponising of toxic masculinity to sell razors in a world already divided on rights, wrongs and everything in-between (Brexit, Trump, Populism, Plastic to name but a few) helps no one and adds nothing positive to the conversation.

    Companies, brands live (rightly) in a new world of MVP – not an NFL Most Valuable Player but a corporate Mission Value Purpose. Some companies get their MVP out year after a year and are recognised for it – I am pleased to repeatedly hear the very positive way consumers and my peers regard King of Shaves as a brand.

    Others attempt to weaponise (yes, I use that word again) MVP to fast track what they have failed to do over a very long time. Gillette, dominant for so long, the most expensive for so long, has struggled ever since the global ‘Shave of Champions’ campaign was derailed by Tiger Woods et al back in 2009 and subsequently shelved. Companies like Dollar Shave, Harrys using subscription/D2C methods have grown, but at huge cost to them and their investors (even Unilever, nursing $1Bn+ losses following DSC purchase).

    Doing ‘the right thing’ is embedded early on and deep, whether in a person or a company. I hope this negative campaign leads to much more positive ones being deployed, as companies come to terms with instant mass comment/criticism/praise in the 2Bn+ interconnected at scale world we live in. Good for Gillette to be be #TheBestMenCanBe, we’ll always aim to be #TheBestMenCanBuy.

  2. Chris Leadley 15 Jan 2019

    Just watched the ad and agree with you on this one Mark. They could have made the negative images/message much shorter (or dropped completely) within the ad itself and concentrated on the positive aspects of masculinity (perhaps while being clean shaven) and striving to be better. This way they could keep their new slogan too, albeit at the expense of the brand equity in their old one.

  3. Tadas R. 15 Jan 2019

    Wow, as of now on Youtube there are 41 000 thumbs up Vs 270 000 thumbs down. Clearly, Gillette failed this one. How fast would they pull this out, I give it a week.

  4. Richard Fullerton 15 Jan 2019

    This must have been originated by the same people who came up with the British Army ‘snowflakes’ ads.

  5. Valentin V 15 Jan 2019

    I like when big brands s*ck like this.

  6. Maja Morawska 15 Jan 2019

    The message is not that men ” need to improve.” but that they can and have the power and ability to improve and protect and make the world a better place.

  7. Monica Vicens 15 Jan 2019

    Love the strategy, and while I too wish the creative had more punch to it, I applaud the brand for taking a stand. I never really cared for Gillette, until now. So even with a subpar creative spot, I just subscribed to a monthly Venus by Gillette supply on Amazon. Do the right thing and the rest will follow.

  8. Luke Chess 15 Jan 2019

    Great message, poor ad.

  9. Glenn Urquhart 16 Jan 2019

    I think Gilette are playing the long game on this, and to be honest, regardless of if it’s seen as a marketing failure I think it’s a bloody necessary message. Concentrating on the ‘positive aspects’ of masculinity is a total cop out and smacks of corporate chicken-heartedness and is, to be honest, just beige and toothless.
    Are we men unable to take any criticism any more? Plus a lot of the responses (and hideous backlash to many of my female peers online who dared call out Mark Ritson on this) kinda confirms the whole message Gillette has highlighted – whether they’re corporate virtue signalling or not. Just getting bored out my skull of being unable to have or hear any conversation on toxic masculinity without the incessant bleating of ‘not all men’, ‘ackchually….’ ‘but it’s not meeee’, ‘men suffer tooooo’ whataboutism etc etc.
    Take it on the chin boys and try and be better for your mates, sons, daughters, etc etc. Dunno what’s so damn inflaming about that.

    • Donovan Banks 16 Jan 2019

      One can look back and see what criticism was copped by the first person to say anything that didn’t fit the narrative;
      “The world is round”
      “Slavery is Wrong”
      “Women have rights too”

      It can go on.
      Perhaps Gillette’s timing was wrong. Perhaps their execution was poor. They did it anyway and we can all sit here and learn from it. I suspect they are big enough to ride it out and come back stronger.

      Also, I’m going to start using ‘whataboutism’ from now on.

  10. Martin Ballantine 16 Jan 2019

    Just can’t agree that sales will drop.

    Gillette ad IS #bigbrandbollocks.

    BUT – I really don’t think the ‘backlash’ will affect sales.

    Men will till buy their shaving ‘stuff’ and just dismiss this as, well, bollocks.

    It’s just another example of a brand not being able to get over itself.

    In other words, Gillette – you’re a shaving brand.

    Stick to shaving and stop trying to be anything else more ‘meaningful’.

    Especially when you have a such a cheesy tag line.

    If you’re serious about the subject, donate to charities.

    Avoid the mawkish. And get over yourself.

  11. Julian Pratt 16 Jan 2019

    I liked it. ‘Not all men’ misses the point, as usual.

    It’s about time we had more PSAs with examples on how individual men can challenge the bullying mentality of the group or tradition.

    Although personally my choice of shaver is driven to how well the head is designed so it doesn’t get clogged up.

  12. Michael Waymouth 16 Jan 2019

    I agree the execution is poor but I’m not sure I agree this is a tactical mistake or that it will cost them.
    You referenced the Nike ad as an example of social advertising done well but if you recall the response in the first few days of the Nike ad was overwhelmingly negative before the positive support took over.
    Current count on YT is 224k likes v 588k dislikes, still majority negative but no where near the 10:1 negative ratio at the time you wrote the article (although there are claims in the YT comments section that dislikes are being deleted…got to love a good conspiracy).

    The comments I’ve seen on other platforms, FB in particular, are majority in favour of the ad.

    Recent history has shown internet rage rarely turns into actual real world action.
    If the survey data is true that women still do the majority of household shopping, combined with the usual consumer apathy to change, I think this could pan out to be a successful campaign for Gillette
    (this assumes that women will be generally in favour of the message that men should be dicks less and so supportive of their partners continuing to use Gillette)

  13. Derek Rocholl 16 Jan 2019

    If it has got all those people pressing the down thumb in outrage to think about themselves a bit well done P&G for showing the mirror. As for it being a disaster of a campaign I suspect the coverage will be good news for brand take up amongst a far wider and diverse section of global society than the stuff they have been pumping out for ages. P&G does after all sell a fair amount of stuff under its Gillette brand to women buying for themselves and for men.

  14. Jake Dyer 16 Jan 2019

    Possibly right strategy, definitely wrong execution.

    Reflected also in the points Alice Thomson made in her Times article: ‘We should talk about positive masculinity…to be responsible and emotionally intelligent. Gillette has produced another ad just for the British market which is far more compelling. This shows a male hairdresser befriending a homeless man on the street, asking if he would like his hair cut and showing kindness, compassion and strength of mind. This is the ad I want my children to see: it shows how to live in the 21st century with the line “the best we can be”.

  15. Bernie Folan 16 Jan 2019

    The ad is cheesy and clunky. Their usual fare is at least as cheesy, if slick (too slick).
    The message is good, it makes me think more positively about Gillette than before. I’d say fail better but stick to the message, give the execution a lot more thought.

  16. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance 16 Jan 2019

    As always, activist Titania McGrath had her finger on the pulse. “So brave to see @Gillette calling out toxic masculinity. They’ve made a fortune over the years by pretending there are differences beween men and women. Fingers crossed this campaign is successful enough to put them out of business once and for all.

  17. Tadas R. 16 Jan 2019

    On the bright side, we can still witness a brand making a splash in culture. A brand that takes so little space in average consumer’s life becomes the number one talk on so many different levels.

  18. Giannina Warren 16 Jan 2019

    I applaud a brand using its platform to encourage important conversations on key social issues and inserting themselves on the right side of history. No doubt Gillette did their risk assessment on this advert, and decided that the backlash would be worth it. With women making 80% of household CPG decisions, I have a feeling it’s not going to hurt their bottom line. And for the men who have a problem with a brand calling for more compassion, less toxic behaviour, and general kindness… well maybe they’re the actual problem. Their resistance to the message only signals how relevant it is.

  19. DAVID RING 16 Jan 2019

    I don’t understand why people hate this message. Who cares if it’s from a razor company? It’s a call out for all to acknowledge the ideal characteristics of manhood. And it can be summed up by saying, “just don’t be dick.” Common sense enough. I didn’t mind the execution. The over-reaction to it is indicative of how close to home it really hits. Give them a break for at least trying something here. It’s not the mis-step of the in-house Pepsi ad. And it’s certainly not the curtain call for the brand as Mark Ritson purports.

  20. Victoria Osborne 16 Jan 2019

    The whole thing could have been redeemed by featuring the boy looking up and watching his father shaving at the end. Maybe a bit twee, but nostalgia touches something in most of us, at the very least it was an opportunity to introduce the product. I’m all for the powers that be attempting to lead the way in promoting social change where it needs doing, but this just feels like it’s missing a trick and smacks of Pepsi’s woeful attempt.

  21. Ahoo Raad 16 Jan 2019

    Why are you and so many other men are upset by this afternoon?! That’s the question you should ask yourself! Are the same sexist bully person and now triggered by the truth?!! The fact that there’s so many dislikes shows why we need these kind of videos to be made. It’s a disgusting ignorant world we leave in!

  22. Robert Strohfeldt 16 Jan 2019

    Companies live in a world of MVP? Seriously.? As soon as I saw this I thought of Nike. We keep talking about how smart consumers are amd then think they can be easily fooled when a company gets on it’s high horse to “make a moral stand”. They ony do it because they think it will help sales i.e. commercial purposes. Business has always been involved in suporting not for profit causes. But there is a big difference between supporting worthy charitable causes, being a good corporate citizen and a gesture pushing TVC. Good to see it backfire so badly.

  23. Satish Pai 17 Jan 2019

    Even at a creative level I found it badly wanting.

    As a victim of toxic masculinity, there’s a lot going on when attacks happen from sledging to silent, surprise attacks, nasty offensive pranks, lack of attention and deliberate ignorance, publicizing and name-calling in public -I could go on. (With women the list would be even longer and far worse)

    Sorry, I didn’t relieve any of this when I watched this. Its formulaic but if it had even addressed the real tensions of toxic masculinity, perhaps there might have been some resonance…. at least at a creative level

  24. Satish Pai 17 Jan 2019

    BTW they should have got some inspiration from the Burger King campaign of the bullied burger campaign which looked somewhat staged but still managed to pull it off with a lot of impact

  25. Robert Hobson 17 Jan 2019

    I’m quite interested in the assertion that razors should have featured more strongly in the spot. Presumably people do exist who are unaware that Gillette makes razors. It makes sense, therefore, to ensure that this hitherto marginalised consumer group is catered for and in this, you’re absolutely right and Gillette are missing a trick. For those of us who may have had an inkling that the business has explored the sales potential of sharp metal objects, though, I suspect we don’t need that much of a reminder.

    Speaking purely personally, I didn’t feel as though I was being told that I was at fault and that I should improve as a man (I wonder if the analysis says as much about the analyst as it does the ad). I’m also fascinated to note that the article is using the Youtube comments section as supporting evidence for its conclusions. I don’t disagree that there’s a place for Youtube comments in an intelligent person’s life: I just wonder if that place exists outside of a debate centred around toxic bigotry. Next stop, presumably, is enlightened political discourse on Twitter.

    Each to their own, of course. I didn’t think that the ad said anything that hadn’t been said far better and more eloquently by many other people, but that’s not really the point. When the point of the argument is “carry on doing what you’ve always done” then surely that tells its own story. To be devil’s advocate, though: who else but the bulldozing market leader could do something like this and create such a furore around it? It reminds me a little of a homosexuality debate in football: there may very well be thousands of gay footballers, but until someone with the profile of Messi or Mbappe comes out, it will continue to be a problem all too easily ignored. The brand, at least, is trying. The opinion here seems, I fear, a little phoned in.

  26. Marcelo Salup 20 Jan 2019

    I don’t shave… so right there this might disqualify me. I did watch the spot. Totally fabricated controversy which, if it wasn’t for a bunch of pundits looking for a target to pund against will die in a month. Honestly, I don’t think anyone is going to change brands because of this. The issue of toxic masculinity (and it affects guys like me who go to dive bars and have to rub shoulders with toxic masculinity carriers) is real. However, this, if you look at it coldly, is one more instance of creative people talking to other creative people. I love a good controversy when I see one. This ain’t it.

  27. Duncan Dodds 23 Jan 2019

    But. It’s a wet razor no? A purchase decision made in the blink of an eye as to how well it will do the job without setting my face on fire, will the razor blades be cheaper in bulk, or is there a big discount on their newer, higher tech version, which would warrant me ‘upgrading’. What permission did I give them (as a consumer), to intrude into my personal or political beliefs? Or more to the point, why as an average consumer would I want to spend more than a millisecond thinking or caring about this brand beyond what it can do for me as I quickly browse the shelves for all the other things on my shopping list?
    BBC Radio 4’s News Quiz (a comedy) had a good old laugh at this and brought the whole concept of brand purpose right back down to earth where it belongs (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0002235). Shock of the century, most ‘normal’ people (ie not in our profession), simply don’t care enough about brands or devote much emotional space to them. They’ll have a good old laugh / cry at corporate self-importance though. Surely it’s our job to motivate people to buy our product / service based on making them feel great about our product / service over the competition. Call me old fashioned.

  28. Julian Pratt 23 Jan 2019

    My wife cried at the kids in the mirror.
    Wonder what brand she will get him for his first razor in a few years?

Leave a comment

Close

Discover even more as a subscriber

This article is available for subscribers only.

Sign up now for your access-all-areas pass.

Subscribers get unlimited access to unrivalled coverage of the biggest issues in marketing and world-renowned columnists, alongside carefully curated reports and briefings from Econsultancy. Find out more.

If you are an existing print subscriber find out how you can get access here.

Subscribe now

Got a question?

Contact us on +44 (0)20 7292 3703 or email customerservices@marketingweek.com

If you are looking for our Jobs site, please click here

Subscribers get unlimited access to unrivalled coverage of the biggest issues in marketing and world-renowned columnists, alongside carefully curated reports and briefings from Econsultancy. Find out more.

If you are an existing print subscriber find out how you can get access here.

Subscribe now