Getting Proactiv About Branding: Why DR Giant Changed Its Ways

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The Insight

Traditional brand advertisers have tinkered with direct-response ads for years, largely to qualify for cheaper TV inventory. But direct-response advertisers rarely try traditional brand ads with story­lines. Now Proactiv is doing just that with a big brand campaign that included a Super Bowl ad during overtime in February, thanks to a contingency buy from Icon Media Direct.

Fortuitously for them, the game did indeed go into overtime for the first time in its history. Behind the luck, however, was insight-driven strategy. The acne and skincare brand had already begun running a longer form of the ad featuring Olivia Munn as part of a new plan to use a more conventional branding approach, more like the personal-care advertisers you'd find on store shelves instead of late-night TV pitches.

The insight was simple, said Jay Sung, CEO of Proactiv and a veteran of Guthy-Renker, which introduced the brand in 1995 and sold half its stake to venture partner Nestlé last year. Research found 90% of people are aware of Proactiv and most trust the brand as effective. But almost none could say why.

"We run 5,000 TV spots a week," Sung said. "For a consumer not to know that point of difference is a problem." Perhaps more so, millennials thought of Proactiv as a classic "yell and sell" direct-response brand, and he believes that was turning them off. Beyond the Munn ad, Proactiv is leading even its more conventional DR ads, all from its in-house studio, with more conventional brand storyline footage at the front end, such as spots showing parents helping their kids deal with acne, before getting to the hard sell.

The Idea

Proactiv is using the branding approach as a "halo" to help make the direct-response ads more believable, Sung said. "We still run a decent amount of direct response. But to extend our reach to other demographics and also be more relatable and believable, we need more traditional storyline-
driven ads."

It's changed Proactiv's media buying well beyond the Super Bowl. Proactiv still buys mostly cable, but more in primetime and higher-rated shows, which drove TV spending, as estimated by, to $45 million for the three months ended May 2, nearly double the $24 million spent in the year-ago period.

What They Learned

"Reports from Nielsen show that I was reaching everybody" with the old cable plan, Sung said. But with the Super Bowl, he said, it's "a different kind of reach," where people are more likely to be paying attention.

The Super Bowl doubled traffic to Proactiv's website and call center. But the longer-term effort, which really began when the branding ads started in late December and with a sustained increase in TV spending, has seen a steady rise in consumer response. Google Trends shows U.S. search queries on Proactiv running nearly double what they were a year ago.

What's Next

Proactiv will stick with the branding approach both online and on TV, which also includes a "We're Here" ad focused on diversity (i.e., Proactiv working for all skin types and situations).

"Going forward, I would say we're going to do roughly one-third branding ads with more of a storyline," Sung said, "and about two-thirds of our traditional 'Here's a reason to buy now' ads."

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