By  on September 17, 2010

Men are revealing a lot these days: their feelings. And not about Fantasy Football, for once. After decades of indifference, men have dropped their guard and admitted they care what women think of their looks.

A glance at the latest men’s grooming ads elicits the following range of emotion-led actions from the XY chromosome set: a wink-wink, knee slap, fist pump, wistful sigh, hand over heart — and, increasingly, a purchase. Men’s marketers are trying to spur men to buy grooming products with a string of memorable messages that use either humor, sex or appeal to their confidence (or lack there of). The shift in tone comes as men are opting for a more barbered, clean-cut look — another reason to thank the guys on Madison Avenue, or, in this case, “Mad Men.”

When it comes to marketing to men, Paco Underhill, founding president of the New York-based consultancy Envirosell, said there are really only two approaches from which to choose: “Sex and humor.” Marketers have delivered those two elements in spades. The men’s grooming category in the U.S. totaled $4.8 billion last year, up 1.1 percent from $4.7 billion in 2008, according to Euromonitor International, and this year promises more robust movement.

The real key to unleashing supersonic growth, suggests Underhill, is getting the guy’s guy — or, in his words, “the Caterpillar tractor driver or Harley-Davidson rider” — to buy into the men’s grooming category. “Men’s sexual identity is much more tender than women’s. They are scared of being called wimpy or not tough,” said Underhill.

Enter the long-held practice of drafting hulking sports stars to front men’s care products.

Men’s ads have been soaked in testosterone since Joe Namath lathered his face with Noxzema shaving cream in the early Seventies, and that has not changed. But several marketers are putting a fresh spin on what it means to be masculine.

Procter & Gamble Co.’s 72-year-old Old Spice brand ignited belly laughter, online chatter and sales by poking fun of masculine bravado. The brand launched its “Smell Like a Man, Man” campaign, featuring the shirtless, smooth-talking Isaiah Mustafa — a former NFL wide receiver-turned-actor — just prior to the Super Bowl and the video soon went viral.

The spot featured Mustafa riding backward on a white horse, declaring, “Did you know women prefer Old Spice for their men one bagillion times more than ladies’ scented bodywashes?” Another ad began with a smooth, deep-throated “Hello, ladies,” in a bid to pull in female fans (read: buyers). The absurdity hooked consumers, who soon began downloading the TV commercials from YouTube.

Sales rocketed. Speaking at Barclays conference last week, Ed Shirley,P&G’s vice chairman of global beauty and grooming, said, “And as aresult of great consumer communication, as well as an incredibleleverage of our social media, we’ve been able to drive Old Spice tomarket leadership in both deodorants and bodywash in the U.S. againstour chief competitor, Axe.”

The company had been working torecast Old Spice for a younger audience for five years. “We weren’tsatisfied with the results we were getting. The brand was doing well,but we weren’t fully exploiting the power of the brand,” said ThomLachman, P&G’s vice president for North America grooming. The ads,created by Weiden + Kennedy, were designed to appeal to women, whopurchase 60 percent of men’s grooming products, but not alienate men.

To introduce its men’s care line, Dove Men+Care, last winter, theUnilever brand built its “Manthem” advertising campaign, created byOgilvy & Mather, around “unsung moments,” like the day a man marriesor his child is born, said Mike Dwyer, marketing director for UnileverMen’s deodorant brands, which includes Dove Men+Care, Axe, Suave,Vaseline and Degree.

Of course, there is a bit of laugherinvolved. The first ad spot — aired during this year’s Super Bowl —introduced the Dove Men+Care “Manthem,” which declares (set to “WilliamTell Overture,” mind you): “You’ve reached a stage where you feel atease. You’ve come this far and it wasn’t a breeze. You can take onanything. Of course you can! Because you’re a man.”

More recentads tone down the laughs and turn up the emotion. In July, the brandlaunched an iAd called “Journey to Comfort,” which features severalMajor League Baseball players, including New York Yankees pitcher AndyPettitte, speaking candidly about their path to personal andprofessional success.

The approach is a far cry from itsbrother brand, Axe, which has been raising eyebrows in the U.S. sinceits launch here in 2002. “The positioning hasn’t changed. The brand isstill focused on being the guy’s ally in the mating game. However, girlshave very much been integrated into the marketing campaigns,” saidDwyer. “The girls are now in on the joke.”

At the time of Axe’slaunch, Dwyer recalled, “The market had a very dry, functional approachto speaking to men.” He added Axe wanted to speak to 18- to24-year-olds’ interests — which are, basically, girls, girls and girls —in a witty and irreverent way. Irreverent may be the operative word.The tag line for The Axe Detailer, a two-side exfoliator, or, inreality, a manly version of a bodywash puff, is “Cleans Your Balls.”

“Guys are generally very literal,” said Dwyer. “Instead of using theword ‘exfoliate,’ Axe says, ‘Scrap off the rough stuff.’”

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