BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- Some might not see the Axe man as complicated. But for its newest global fragrance launch, the Unilever brand joined with London-based Face Co-Creation to recruit 25 college-age consumers to develop a fragrance that shows the Axe man can be complex -- and evolve literally over time.
Axe ads have traditionally been about products that instantly turn women into lust-crazed vixens bent on coupling with Axe-wearing gents as quickly as possible. But in the first ad for the new fragrance Twist, a robot makes over a guy repeatedly during the course of a date in which the woman appears acutely interested only at the end. The ad is based on a concept co-created by consumers and ad agency Ponce.
"Women get bored easily," notes a version of the ad for Axe sibling Lynx in the U.K., which touts a "fragrance that changes."
The reality, said David Cousino, global director of consumer and marketing insights at Unilever, is that all fragrances change, starting with a fresh, strong, usually citrusy top note that lasts for as long as an hour and aims to help cover the smell of alcohol-based propellants as they evaporate, progressing to a generally richer, milder mid-note and a longer-lasting and often subtler-still "dry-down" note. This is all old hat to fragrance developers and marketers, he said, but it was new and fascinating to the consumers in the development group.
"The guys linked that to the mating game and how guys are feeling that they need to constantly change and evolve to keep the girls interested," Mr. Cousino said.
While fragrance developers often look to minimize the differences in fragrance note, the co-creation team asked the fragrance house "to punch up the top note really hard and then make the bottom note very smooth and rounded and much more opulent," he said, "to magnify the differences."
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While "crowdsourcing" and consumer co-creation have become increasingly popular for marketers of all types, Axe Twist marks Unilever's biggest gamble to date on extensive consumer involvement in product and advertising development. Previously, the brand's U.K. sibling, Lynx, used Face and a group of business-school students getting college credit to develop a summer fragrance variant. But that was a limited local launch. Twist, on the other hand is a global product launch intended as a permanent addition to the Axe lineup of body sprays, antiperspirants and body washes.
Face's online community of global Axe loyalists played a role as a recruiting ground and the means for some of the Axe project's work, but the culmination came in face-to-face sessions over a week in New York. Those sessions, held in 2008, yielded the product idea, name and gist of the advertising concept. In addition to consumers, the session was attended by Unilever R&D and marketing staff, Axe's outside fragrance developers, led by Ann Gottlieb, and one of Axe's global ad agencies, Vega-Olmos Ponce (now rebranded as Ponce Beunos Aires, a unit of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Lowe, after Fernando Vega Olmos left to work on Unilever at JWT in 2008).
Notably, the consumer group included not only 20 guys, but also five women, all in Axe's 18- to 23-year-old target and from the U.S., U.K., Argentina and Germany, Mr. Cousino said.
"The thing that the girls bring in is a level of honesty," Mr. Cousino said. "When guys talk about their conquests or their ability to pull in girls, they tend to exaggerate or brag among themselves. And I think the girls really provided an anchor in reality."
The presentation had the quality generally associated with a finished pitch for agency creative, Mr. Cousino said. "Because the agency was involved from the beginning, everybody feels like they've co-owned the idea. So the idea really hasn't changed that much from what was co-created."
And because consumers were involved heavily at the outset, Axe did far less in the concept evaluation phase than it generally does. The ads, he noted, have subsequently scored well in qualitative and quantitative testing.
In terms of time and cost, the consumer co-creation process is similar to what Unilever has done in the past. But he said Unilever is pleased enough with the quality of the ideas that it plans to keep using the process more broadly, including work for its savory foods business.
While crowdsourcing is often seen as a relatively new and digital phenomenon, with companies such as Procter & Gamble Co. and Clorox Co. among those using websites and Twitter to solicit ideas from suppliers or consumers, the idea goes back at least to the technology industry in the 1980s. One of the earliest researchers and developers of the concept, Eric Von Hippel, professor of technology and innovation at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has led dozens of end-user-led development projects for a growing array of marketers during recent decades.
"Co-creation has become a very big buzzword ... with a lot of basically focus-group moderators claiming to do co-creation," Mr. Cousino said. "They facilitate a focus group with the marketers in the same room. That's really not what I think co-creation is. There aren't that many agencies that do it well. It really is about finding the right kind of consumers who can be creative and passionate about your brand, but the moderation is also incredibly important."