Marketing Excellence Unilever (Axe and Dove)
Unilever—manufacturer of several home care, food, and personal care brands—uses personal marketing communications strategies to target specific age groups, demographics, and lifestyles. The company has developed some of the most successful brands in the world, including Axe, a male grooming brand, and Dove, a personal care brand aimed at women.
The Axe brand launched in 1983, was introduced in the United States in 2002, and is now the most popular male grooming brand in the world, sold in more than 70 different countries. It offers young male consumers a wide range of personal care products such as body sprays, body gel, deodorant, and shampoo in a variety of scents. It effectively broke through the clutter by finding the right target group and delivering personal marketing messages that touched home.
The biggest opportunity existed with males who might have felt a need for help in attracting the opposite sex and could easily be persuaded to buy products to help their appearance. Most Axe ads use humor and sex, often featuring skinny, average guys attracting beautiful girls by the dozen, hundreds, or even thousands after dousing themselves with Axe. The result: The brand is aspirational and approachable, and the lighthearted tone appeals to young men.
Axe has won numerous advertising awards not only for its creativity but also for its effective use of unconventional media channels. From edgy online videos to video games, mating game tool kits, chat rooms, and mobile apps, the Axe brand engages young adult males at relevant times, locations, and environments. In Colombia, for example, a female Axe Patrol scopes out the bar and club scene and sprays men with Axe body sprays. Unilever Marketing Director Kevin George explained, “This is all about going beyond the 30-second TV commercial to create a deeper bond with our guy.”
Axe knows where to reach its consumers. It advertises only on male-dominated networks such as MTV, ESPN, Spike, and Comedy Central. It partners with the NBA and NCAA, which draw young male audiences, and runs ads during big sporting events. After Axe’s Super Bowl commercial ran in February 2014, it was viewed on YouTube.com more than 100 million times. Print ads appear in Playboy, Rolling Stone, GQ, and Maxim. Axe’s online efforts via Facebook and Twitter help drive consumers back to its Web site, TheAxeEffect.com.
Unilever understands that it must keep the brand fresh, relevant, and cool in order to stay current with its fickle young audience. As a result, the company launches a new fragrance every year and refreshes its online and advertising communications constantly, realizing that new young males enter and exit the target market each year. Axe’s success in personal marketing has lifted the brand to become the leader in what many had thought was the mature deodorant category.
On the other side of the personal marketing spectrum, Unilever’s Dove brand speaks to women with a different tone and message. In 2003, Dove shifted away from its historical advertising, which touted the brand’s benefit of one-quarter moisturizing cream, and launched the “Real Beauty” campaign. “Real Beauty” celebrated “real” women and spoke personally to the target market about the notion that beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, ages, and colors. The campaign arose from research revealing that only 4 percent of women worldwide think they are beautiful.
The first phase of the “Real Beauty” campaign featured nontraditional female models and asked viewers to judge their looks online and decide whether they were “Wrinkled or Wonderful” or “Oversized or Outstanding.” The personal questions shocked many but created such a large PR buzz that Dove continued the campaign. The second phase featured candid and confident images of curvy, full-bodied women. Again, the brand smashed stereotypes about what should appear in advertising and touched many women worldwide. The third phase, “Pro-Age,” featured older, nude women and asked questions like, “Does beauty have an age limit?” Immediately, the company heard positive feedback from its older consumers. Dove also started a Self-Esteem Fund, aimed at helping women feel better about their looks.
In addition, Dove released a series of short Dove Films, one of which, Evolution, won both a Cyber and a film Grand Prix at the International Advertising Festival in Cannes in 2007. The film shows a rapid-motion view of an ordinary-looking woman transformed by makeup artists, hairdressers, lighting, and digital retouching to end up looking like a billboard supermodel. The end tagline is: “No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted.” The film became an instant viral hit.
Dove followed up with Onslaught, a short film that showed a fresh-faced young girl being bombarded with images of sexy, half-dressed women and promises of products to make her look “smaller,” “softer,” “firmer,” and “better.” Dove’s 2013 film called Sketches featured a police sketch artist who drew two pictures of the same woman. For one, the woman described herself to the sketch artist from behind a curtain, and for the other, a total stranger described her. The difference in language and descriptions revealed how women are often their harshest beauty critics. The ad ended with the tagline “You are more beautiful than you think.” The Sketches film has become the most watched video advertisement of all time and had more than 175 million views in its first year alone.
Dove’s latest effort to change the attitudes of women and promote positive self-esteem was called the Ad Makeover. The campaign appeared only on Facebook and gave women the power to replace negative ads (such as for plastic surgery or weight-loss products) on their friends’ Facebook pages with positive messages from Dove like “Hello Beautiful” and “The Perfect Bum Is the One You Are Sitting On.” Unilever in effect bought the ad space from Facebook for the positive ads to appear on the friend’s site, effectively squeezing out the negative ads. During the first week the Ad Makeover app was launched, 171 million banners with negative messages were replaced.
Although the Axe and the Dove campaigns have both sparked much controversy and debate, they couldn’t be more different. Yet both have effectively targeting their consumer base with personal marketing strategies and spot-on messages. In fact, in the 10 years that Dove has focused on changing women’s attitudes and promoting positive self-esteem, sales have jumped from $2.5 billion to $4 billion. Axe is not only the most popular male grooming brand in the world, but also Unilever’s best-selling brand.
1. What makes personal marketing work? Why are Dove and Axe so successful at it?
2. Can a company take personal marketing too far? Explain.
3. Is there a conflict of interests in the way Unilever markets to women and young men? Is it undoing all the good that might be done in the “Campaign for Real Beauty” by making women sex symbols in Axe ads? Discuss.