On a recent June morning, a collection of 30 or so Axe marketing executives at Unilever, along with staff from ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York; Omnicom Group's event specialist GMR Marketing, Chicago; and Edelman PR gathered at the Catalyst Ranch, a former fish-processing plant turned corporate retreat. The purpose: a "deep dive" into the sex life of the Axe man.
"We're here to understand the Axe man and his life in the mating game, who he's about, why he does it, what gets him excited, what are his fears," said Alison Zelen, Unilever's senior manager-consumer market insight.
To do so, the group heard from Radar Communications, the Boulder, Colo., cultural-anthropology firm hired to videotape and draw up an ethnography of 28 target consumers ages 18-22 and their friends in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh.
They found the Axe man, renowned as a cheeky devil in Bartle Bogle ads, really does have lots of sex-generally weekly, often more frequently. Yet he rarely dates. He generally goes with groups of guys to parties or, after age 21, bars, to hook up and won't admit he's in a relationship even if he is. "Boyfriend" and "girlfriend" are words rarely spoken for these often loose and ill-defined "friends with benefits" relationships, said Kirsten Gunnerud, content manager, Radar.
Men in the Axe target group fall into such classifications as "pimp daddy" and "player" to "sweetheart" and "shy guy." Almost all are getting some. But often, they don't respect themselves in the morning.
This is what Unilever marketers call "brain food." It may seem like more information than one needs to sell men toiletries. But it's all quite relevant for a brand dedicated to helping men "compete in the mating game," said David Rubin, senior manager-Axe brand development.
Since Axe launched in August 2002, Mr. Rubin has encountered several cases where Axe consumers spontaneously interact with Axe ads. On the voicemail for a toll-free line for the fake law firm Huckster & Huckster in Axe radio ads, some guys leave poetic or rap odes or stories about how their dog's love of Axe has turned him into a party animal. Many others forward viral ads from the Axe Web site. Several hundred bought copies off the site of a limited-edition magazine insert titled "How to Cope with All the Ladies."
Radar has done ethnographies for beer, automotive and furniture-polish brands-but usually delves deep into how consumers use products, not their bodies. "This is some of the more fun work," said Bryan McCarthy, client-service manager, "bringing the target to life vs. going into the field to get an answer to a specific product messaging question."
Delving into the Axe man's psyche, even his sex life, is what makes it possible to make such ads, Mr. Rubin said. "It's about creating a culture in the team where we have an intrinsic sense of what's going to get people talking."
And get them buying. The brand's sales were $50 million last year as measured by Information Resources Inc.-seven times those of a simultaneously launched and similarly supported Old Spice spray, said Allison Harmon, Unilever marketing communications manager.