Axe's Approach to White Label: More Mystery, Less Sex and No Body Spray

Unilever Now Pushing Self-Confidence for Young Men

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Axe is edging further away from its heritage of ads about sex with a campaign for the new Axe White Label line, to air on College Football Playoff games Jan. 1, aimed at sophisticated men seeking serious grooming -- and not just to attract women.

A summer ad for Axe Gold Temptation had no boy-girl action at all. And in launching a far bigger effort for its new line of antiperspirants, body washes and hair products, the Unilever brand is trying to project confidence that goes well beyond its old "mating game" stomping ground.

One new ad from BBH, New York, shows women fantasizing that a man is a movie star or someone else famous. But it also shows a little boy, an old man and a Russian general fantasizing about who the mysterious and impeccably groomed stranger strutting confidently through the lobby of a swanky hotel is. They speculate that he must be a spy, a "dangerous man" or a comedian. He turns out to be a hotel worker.

"How you feel says it all," is the tagline. And while the implication is that Axe White Label will help, the idea is that "confidence really emanates from within and doesn't depend on the products that you use," said Matthew McCarthy, Unilever senior director of Axe and men's grooming.

"If you've ever been in a restaurant in L.A. and someone with confidence walks in the door, the whole restaurant turns and looks at that guy," said Ari Weiss, executive creative director of BBH, New York. "There's always this assumption that he must be famous."

White Label products aim to help make men seem famous with such unusual fragrance notes as praline, star fruit, moss, fig and ginger. A new line of antiperspirants, with a dry-spray technology Unilever is bringing to the U.S. for the first time, is the leading form globally, Mr. McCarthy said. White Label, while it will still have stick deodorants, looks to make that happen in the U.S. too, he said.

One thing White Label won't have is the product form Axe began with – body spray. "We wanted to provide proper focus for this dry-spray technology," said Mr. McCarthy, rather than muddy things by simultaneously launching a new body spray using old technology. But it's not about moving away from body spray, where he said Axe continues to see growth, he said.

Axe has been on the Super Bowl the past two years, but has no current plans to be there in 2015, Mr. McCarthy said. So are the college playoffs the new Super Bowl?

"We'll only know after the fact," he said. "It's a bit of an experiment for the entire college football world, and on Axe, we love to try new things. Fans are super excited. I think it's going to be huge, and frankly I wanted to put the brand there."

Put it all together, and it's as different in some ways as black and white. A brand that began life in the U.S. as a body spray using ads laden with sexual innuendo that rarely ran during sports broadcasts has changed on all three fronts.

"It's important not to become too formulaic as a brand," Mr. McCarthy said. What Axe stands for is unchanged, he said, but how it conveys that needs to keep pace with how "young people express their personal identity."