Unilever had a conundrum when it came to the Chinese launch of Lynx, the body spray known in the U.S. as Axe. The problem wasn't persuading Chinese guys to select Lynx over a competitor but to choose it at all in a country where men have never been expected to smell good.
"Guys are open to grooming, but fragrance is not part of the repertoire at the moment," said Jon McCarthy, regional brand director for Axe/Lynx in Asia. "The marketing challenge for us is to integrate our product into guys' routines, to [help them] see the benefits of a confidence boost and to feel more attractive."
The brand achieved that and more, becoming No. 1 in the market. And it did so using a celebrity pitchman with a past so scandalous that his Lynx ads can't even be seen on Chinese on TV.
The strategy was hatched after BBH, which handles Lynx's creative work worldwide, and its Shanghai-based team started fanning out across China to understand the nuances of dating culture. One key insight: Guys in their 20s are bottom-feeders in a big pool where money and social status are key. (Chinese girls say they're just being pragmatic.)
"When you're in university, guys and girls are friends, equals, peers. But as soon as guys leave university, it's a different game," said Philip Man, planning director at BBH, Shanghai. All of a sudden they're up against men who are "more experienced, more suave, and with more money. Young guys have a real confidence problem."
Compounding the difficulty is China's one-child policy, which means most young men have no older brother to offer them advice. Many go online to look for tips on how to win over the ladies, said Elvis Li, BBH Shanghai's business director.
Enter Edison Chen. The Canadian-born actor/pop star/model was one of Asia's most popular celebrities. But in 2008 fame turned to infamy when his vast personal library of intimate photos was leaked online. A slew of Hong Kong's top starlets were shown in hundreds of graphic images, destroying their squeaky-clean personae. Mr. Chen fled Hong Kong—the territory's entertainment industry has well-known ties to organized crime—and told a press conference he was quitting entertainment "indefinitely."
The 31-year-old has since returned to Asia, apparently rehabilitated, and the Lynx gig is among several new commercial projects he's taken on to rebuild his image. However, the Lynx ads were shown only online because Mr. Chen remains blacklisted by China's prudish TV regulators.
"It's my responsibility to warn you that this Lynx is powerful stuff," said Mr. Chen, clad in a white lab coat, as attractive female assistants in the "Lynx Lab" amorously manhandle the Average Joe research subject. "So use it responsibly. You can see why."
Male grooming is a growing category in China, as discerning city dwellers grow beyond run-of -the-mill soap and shampoo . A recent report from Beijing-based CTR, a joint venture between CITVC and Kantar Group, found that deodorant has the biggest potential. Only 5% of Chinese men are weekly deodorant users, compared with 97% for body cleanser and 47% for face cleanser.
Unilever is targeting men ages 21 to 24, slightly older than in many other markets, to give the product aspirational appeal. The price point is higher, too -- about $9.50 a can.
The product launch last June was preceded by videos that showed ordinary guys being seduced, seemingly inexplicably, by their female bosses and sultry car models (to piggyback on interest in the highly popular Shanghai Auto Show).
Within two months, Lynx was the No. 1 men's deodorant brand in China, with a 43.3% share, despite being in only nine cities, according to data from BBH. Lynx shower gel, launched at the same time, was also No. 1 in its segment, with a 25% share.
By the end of 2011, Lynx-branded content had received nearly 170 million views.
Mr. McCarthy acknowledged that using Mr. Chen was a potentially provocative decision but said his well-documented love life is exactly why younger guys look up to him.
"He has a strong and distinctive personality, slightly edgy, which as a brand sits at the heart of us," Mr. McCarthy said. "And he has a lot of experience with women, which one can believe or not depending on what you read."
Unilever and BBH plan to keep the marketing momentum going in 2012 but won't say how. "China moves fast. We can't rest on our laurels," Mr. Man said. "If you take your foot off the gas, someone's going to come in and take your lunch. In China they see you're successful, and they're going to copy you very, very quickly."