P&G's former global marketing officer was so impressed with the old-school brand's success that he made Old Spice imagery a cornerstone of his valedictory address to the Association of National Advertisers last month, starring in a mock commercial for a mock body wash -- Old Spice "Rock Star."
Product growth a myth? This ad is a play on Old Spice's "real man" image.
Unilever, of course, begs to differ.
Needless to say, there's some controversy about that in a battle that's been a flashpoint in the global struggle between package-goods behemoths. Unilever says Axe continues to grow in body spray and beyond, most recently with the launch of Dark Temptation body spray. Unilever Marketing Director Sam Chadha added in a statement: "We don't spend a lot of time thinking about Old Spice."
But Mr. Stengel does -- or at least did. Now proprietor of consultancy Jim Stengel LLC, he pointed to Old Spice on his way out the P&G door as a shining application of his "purpose brands" approach. "Before [Old Spice] discovered its purpose," Mr. Stengel said in his Cincinnati talk, "we were, frankly, chasing Axe. ... It can be a very sexy brand, a very provocative brand, and Old Spice was kind of trying to mimic that."
Mr. Stengel helped engineer a switch from longtime Old Spice agency Saatchi & Saatchi to independent Wieden & Kennedy in 2006, after which the brand stepped back and "got very introspective," he said.
Rather than trying to run away from its grandfatherliness, Old Spice instead embraced a big-brother persona and a purpose as Mr. Stengel described it as "helping guys navigate the seas of manhood" by offering experience.
A manifesto from Old Spice's brand team goes: "I didn't have an older brother to steer me down the aisle to the Old Spice shelf. Needless to say, I spent my formative years watching a lot of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' on Friday nights. Now I have the chance to be that older brother I never had. I want to help the kids of today become the men of tomorrow. I want to sell them some Old Spice."
In practical terms, that's involved a lot of funny ads from Wieden offering campy voices of experience from the likes of B-movie actor Bruce Campbell, Will Farrell's basketball maven Jackie Moon, and most recently a centaur whose animal magnetism has blazed a new trail for prime-time bestiality innuendo.
As a result, Old Spice is no longer declining. Sort of.
Data less impressive
The publicly available numbers don't quite make a forceful case for an actual rebound. They do show Axe slowing across most of its business, which had been until the past year or so one of the biggest marketing success stories of package goods, or anything, of the decade.
Essentially, Information Resources Inc. data for the 52 weeks ended Oct. 5 show Axe -- and Old Spice -- both losing slight share in deodorants while Axe had gained 0.65 points of share in body wash, compared with a 0.18 point decline for Old Spice.
Missing are some key pieces of the puzzle, including the entire body-spray category, which IRI won't release citing an unnamed client request, and the longstanding gaps in the public data from Wal-Mart, club and dollar stores.
Neither P&G nor Unilever would release all-channel data. But a P&G spokesman said, "No matter how you want to slice it -- past five weeks, past three months, past six months, past 12 months, all-outlet male [deodorant] segment -- Old Spice has been growing share across all those time frames," he said. "Axe has a declining share. ... And it's a similar story in body wash as well."
Store checks indicate Old Spice has gained shelf space at Sam's Club in the past year, while Axe has lost distribution at Costco. Both brands have substantial distribution at Wal-Mart, also not included in the public numbers.
Clearly, the decline of the body-spray category has hurt Axe much more than Old Spice. But Axe also has shown life beyond body spray or deodorant. It's been gaining share in its fastest-growing segment -- body wash -- with sales up 16.6% in the 52 weeks ended Oct. 5 in IRI data. That helped it pass Old Spice for leadership there, according to IRI. And with its upcoming move into hair care, Axe is looking to further grow beyond body spray.
Who killed body spray?Beyond the broader battle between Old Spice and Axe lies a possibly bigger question: Who killed body spray?
The last bit of data to emanate from Information Resources Inc. for the 52 weeks ended Jan. 27 shows the category plunged 23.2% to $118.2 million. Because it fell slower than the category, Axe actually gained share by falling only 12.1% to $63.9 million. Old Spice fared better by growing 1.2%, albeit to only $17 million.
Here, it's less clear the category was moved so much by big brother Old Spice as by naughty little brother Tag.
The latter, originally launched by Gillette Co. in 2004 before P&G bought it in 2005, helped define the category downward in age, officially targeting boys as young as 16, doing at least some marketing and research in high schools, and casting a far broader media net than Axe, which officially targeted males 18-24.
Both brands became popular among middle-school boys, who became so infamous for applying them liberally that schools coast to coast banned the products.
Boys' embrace of body spray, and women taking note of that, may have turned off men, said Karen Grant, senior beauty industry analyst with NPD Group. "When you're in stores now and see 9, 10, 11-year-olds asking for body spray," she said, "adults might be saying, 'I don't want to be using something a kid is using.'"