No sweat for Unilever's Axe.
The deodorant brand not only claims to have stolen the lead from Procter & Gamble's growing megabrand Old Spice, but along the way has also built a new and increasingly mimicked model for marketing to young men.
New brands taking or even vying for leadership of established categories in developed markets is rare, and doing so in four years almost unheard of. Making Axe's ascent more remarkable is the fact that Old Spice, which itself assumed the category leadership only two years ago from Right Guard, isn't declining and has actually gained sales and share since Axe attacked.
ACNielsen retail data
The leadership claim rests on Unilever data from VNU's ACNielsen measuring dollar sales in all retail outlets that gives it a 13.3% dollar share in overall deodorants (men and women's) for the 52 weeks ended March 25 and a three-point-plus share lead not just over Old Spice but also P&G's women's brand, Secret.
In body wash, a category Axe entered last year -- two years behind Old Spice -- that data now show it within $3 million of snatching the lead.
P&G quibbles with the claim, saying Old Spice still leads Axe in both volume and household penetration. "On an all-outlet, volume-share basis, for the entire category [including body sprays], our business is nearly twice the size of theirs," said a spokesman.
But while the rivals wrestle over bragging rights, on one point there can be no dispute. The brand has risen remarkably with edgy creative and a marketing message to unleash your inner animal magnetism in a category where efficacy is normally the selling point. Axe has climbed the category by turning its back on other traditional tenets, eschewing sports tie-ins and programming; using online and content integration plays; and defining its competitive set not as deodorants but as PlayStation and Nike.
"They created such a strong presence and big splash in body spray with some extremely smart and sophisticated advertising that really worked," said Michael Wood, VP-research at Teen Research Unlimited.
The firm's research shows that although Old Spice still leads Axe in usage among teens 12 to 19 over the past six months, Axe is up from a weak No. 4 to a strong No. 2 in two years.
Axe, handled by Publicis Groupe-backed Bartle Bogle Hegarty and WPP Group's MindShare, has set itself apart with late-night and nontraditional plays in media.
MTV 'Gamekillers' special
Axe's major ad campaigns so far this year both have used content-integration deals as launch platforms: a "Gamekillers" special on MTV and "Order of the Serpentine" special on Spike TV, both produced by BBH. Web sites for both appear to have generated more buzz -- and engagement -- than Old Spice's most recent online draw, Whensheshot.com, which lets visitors remix the brand's latest ad. Gamekillers.com and OrderoftheSerpentine.com have topped out at 70 and 150 visitors per million Web users, vs. 50 for Whensheshot.com, according to Alexa.com.
Meanwhile, Axe has punted on sports. "I wouldn't say sports programming doesn't work," said Kevin George, VP-deodorants for Unilever North America. "We tend to stay away from it because the brand itself is about guys and girls. And frankly, in all of our research, when guys are watching sports, they ain't thinking about girls."
Unsurprisingly, would-be Axe murderers are on the rise. Old Spice sacked Saatchi & Saatchi for Wieden & Kennedy, known for its arresting work for Nike, among others, and has launched Tag. A new contender is also in the ring under the name of telecom Amp'd Mobile. Both it and Tag bear strong resemblance to Axe's design scheme and/or marketing.