How Old Spice Rebranded and Saved Their Business


Old Spice is a fairly old brand, founded back in the days of the Golden Generation (1937, to be specific). Their earliest ads positioned their products as a minor luxury for America’s GIs —manly and tasteful, with just a dash of pragmatic exoticism. That initial approach was a success. It helped Old Spice sell significant quantities of the sorts of aftershave your badass grandpa wore when he took his girl to the drive-in for date night after coming back from the war. Of course, times change. By the time the 70’s were about to begin, the brand shifted to appeal to the new young man: not the confident mans man, but the stereotypically insecure boy in dire need of assistance and assurance.

From then until Old Spice’s acquisition by P&G in 1990, you might say their marketing aged with that final cohort. They became known for a middle-aged, middle-class sort of product — something neither sexy nor distasteful, purchased by the sort of men who no longer held an interest in adopting new shopping habits. To be successful, P&G knew they had to re-orient the line to appeal to a new, younger demographic — to people like me.

I remember my first encounter with the brand distinctly. It was 2003. I was fourteen, and a newborn convert to the disproportionate use of aftershave in my pursuit of the ladies. Mercifully, a female friend of mine took her time to explain three very important points to me before I wasted mine entirely:

  1. A little goes a long way.
  2. Aftershave is not cologne.
  3. “Old Spice is what you wear to a family reunion, when you want to smell pleasant but sexually unattractive.”

I’d suggest that her thinking on those fronts fairly represented the majority opinion of the time. But, behind the scenes, things at Old Spice were beginning to change — finally. The primary driver of that belated wake-up was the unexpected success of Unilever’s “Axe” body spray products which I’ve written about before. Foul as they were, they were popular. Boys who had only ever worn (if at all) the deodorant that their moms optimistically snuck into their backpacks suddenly developed a preference, fueled by ambitious dreams of ensuring their own “Axe effect” experience.

P&G had to respond. And they did, with typical efficiency. By 2004, they had reclaimed pole position in the US deodorant market at 20% of the billion-dollar pool, followed closely by Gillette’s “Right Guard” line (19%) and Axe (16%).

How they went about that comeback, however, had little to do with the famous advertising campaign we often associate with them.

Their strategy was simple:

  • Rather than targeting adult men, they went after teens and tweeners who had yet to declare a loyalty.
  • They handed out free samples of their “High Endurance” sub-brand to kids in 90% of the 5th-grade health classes in America.
  • They focused on the sports crowd, suggesting a correlation between their products and athletic prowess.
  • They went grassroots, sending reps with promo swag to high-school games and skate-park events.
  • They expanded their product lines to include a suite of washes and sprays.

They also brought in a new marketing firm in 2006: Wieden and Kennedy. Their mandate was to solidify Old Spice’s newfound hooks in the Millennial generation. One of the first big campaigns out of that partnership was called “Swagger” (2008). It was cheeky, but it was a hit. Combined with the outcome of their other efforts, Old Spice owned 25% of the market by early 2009. Also around this time, driven by W&K’s insistence, Old Spice began focusing on being better rather than just cooler. A big part of this was tackling “residue” issues, which they solved by porting the superior molecules of their dry solid varieties into traditional formulations that didn’t leave the dreaded “bar code” stains. Customers loved the result. But it wasn’t the sort of change that spawned water cooler conversations. Enter 2010, the year of the “Man You Wish Your Man Could Smell Like”. This was the campaign we all remember, that we all still point to, that we all agree changed the brand’s trajectory. 100 million YouTube views, an Emmy, a Cannes Lion award, and 1.2 billion earned media impressions later, there was a new favorite marketing campaign that everyone was eager to write about.

But here’s the rub: did that campaign actually translate to a meaningful lift in revenue?

Most of the “studies” will say yes, relying on the same oft-quoted stat: an alleged 107% sales increase.

But that metric (itself an estimate) is wildly misleading. It represents the sales spike from the month after the campaign began in earnest (the first ad was featured during the Super Bowl in early February, but a follow-up series of 186 unique response videos blitzed social media over a 3-day period in June).

Any campaign that size is likely to produce a significant month-long spike. But what about the long-term?

As of the most recent numbers I could find (November ’15), Old Spice now has a 28% share of a $1.4bn US deodorant market. That’s an increase of about 3% over a six-year period.

But here’s the thing: that share was expected to go up anyway. As those 11 year-olds they targeted in 2003 became young adults, organic growth was expected to follow. (Moms tend to buy what’s on sale, not what their teen actually prefers. As those teen age and gain their own economy agency, brand sales go up.) Even if we could contribute 2/3rds of that 3% jump to their 2010 ad campaign (almost certainly too high an estimate), that still pales to the earlier jump of almost 10%  they achieved from 1999 to 2008 — which is the real unsung hero of the story.

The resurgence did come from a re-branding, but not from the advertising we saw in 2010.

Was the advertising campaign iconic? Yes. Did it add value? Absolutely, but contrary to what many, including myself, may have thought, it had little to do with their overall success.