How Secret Found Inspiration in Perspiration

Getting Involved in Bringing Women's Ski-Jumping to Olympics Paid Big Dividends

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Harley-Davidson. Whole Foods. Patagonia. Plenty of room for passion there. But what about categories that aren't so emotionally charged, such as consumer packaged goods? Try plumbing the depths of a deodorant, looking for inspiration in perspiration.

Which is why we offer one case history with which we are intimately familiar. It concerns Procter & Gamble's Secret antiperspirant.

Secret has been around since 1956, the first deodorant marketed exclusively to women. For nearly the entire Consumer Era, P&G used slice-of -life narratives about confidence. With Secret, you can be active, get nervous, lift your arms and live your life without fear of embarrassment over the fact that you sweat.

"It was always about key issues of the day and inspiring women to be fearless," says Kevin Hochman, marketing director for skin and personal care at P&G North America. In late 2004, the brand stewards sensed that the theme was getting dated.

"We walked away," Hochman says. "We thought, women are empowered, and maybe this isn't so relevant. That was a mistake."

Growth slowed to a near standstill. In 2008, new varieties of "clinical-strength" Secret helped boost the brand, but the effect waned as top P&G management was espousing purpose-driven marketing. You can snigger at the notion of a deodorant manifesto, but that 's what the Secret team created by examining the brand in terms of a woman's life:

"We believe in the equality of the genders and that all people should be able to pursue their goals without fear. We believe that by acting courageously, supporting others, empathizing with their challenges and finding innovative solutions, we can help women be more fearless."

As a collaborator, Imc2 suggested getting Secret involved in a movement to make women's ski-jumping an Olympic event. Secret, launched "Let Her Jump " with a negligible online-media buy, a change on the Clinical Sport version to the image of a female ski jumper, and a Facebook page with a video and a petition.

Three things then happened :

First, more than 700,000 people viewed the video. Second, sales of Secret spiked. "This was the first time we could pinpoint ... purpose [generating] a huge sales lift," Hochman says. "We saw the Clinical Sport [stock-keeping units] up 85% during the [2010] Olympics, and the Clinical lineup saw growth in the teens. Last fiscal year, the Clinical family grew nearly 20% in sales." Third, in April 2011, the International Olympic Committee decided to include women's ski-jumping in the 2014 Winter Games.

Secret also rallied support for attempts by Diana Nyad, 61, to swim to Florida from Cuba. In the end, injury, illness and poisonous jellyfish forced Nyad to abort two swims, 29 and 40 hours in. Yet her followers were inspired, with many tracking her progress on Secret's page. Even before her efforts, sales of Secret Clinical Strength Waterproof -- the most expensive item in the line -- doubled.

Secret's latest initiative, also Facebook-based, is "Mean Stinks," an anti-bullying campaign encouraging adolescents to be civil and kind instead of torturing one another. Anyone who ever went to middle school might assume such an exercise would be an object of ridicule. But within a few weeks, 75,000 kids sent apologies to peers or posted friendly graffiti. The page drew 203,000 new fans in one day.

That statistic is either impressive or, if you're accustomed to buying audiences by the millions, pitiful. While we do not know how to quantify its value, we can say categorically that it's not pitiful. These are not 203,000 who saw an ad. These are 203,000 who, of their own volition, expressed solidarity with Secret's efforts.

By virtue of the exponential dynamics of word-of -mouth, those numbers will grow. And each individual represents not an audience member who registered, remembered, liked, believed, cared about, snorted derisively at or actively avoided the ad message, but someone who affirmed a shared belief.

"In the fiscal year that Mean Stinks launched, total brand dollar share was up 8%," Hochman says. "Our Clinical family of SKUs, which were the products associated with Mean Stinks, grew 20% in volume vs. the previous year. Our Facebook fan engagement increased 24 times, and about half of those fans engage with the page on a regular basis."

We don't call these "campaigns," a word that implies conquering consumers, but "ignitions," sparking the interest of the like-minded in a common cause. Long after a typical effort might have run its course and left the brand managers where they started, the Secret community will be a living, breathing and almost certainly growing crowd.

Including the Secret community within P&G. "The way the Secret team operates now compared with three years ago -- it's like day and night," Hochman says. "And when people are living the brand, they're more excited to come to work. ... It's much more enabling and inspiring."

Inspiration about perspiration? No, about being part of something more satisfying than pushing products. The enthusiasm brings to mind an observation of 20th-century French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

"If you want to build a ship, don't herd people together to collect wood," Saint-Exupery wrote. And, rather than assign them tasks, "teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

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