Just For Men and other grooming brands rush to embrace male vulnerability

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If there were ever a sign that men's grooming ads—or maybe even men—have changed, it's the "Be the Better Man" campaign breaking Sunday from Just For Men. Even in a business where many brands are trying hard to portray themselves and their customers as more vulnerable and less sexist or stereotypical, the new campaign from the hair-coloring brand is a big departure. An ad shows fathers caring for children and even a heavily tattooed millennial applying eye liner. The effort marks the first creative from the Amp Agency, New York, following decades of in-house creative.

Just For Men was previously known for ads like one where former baseball pitcher Randy Johnson colored his hair to help get a harem of women to do his yard work and serve him drinks.

More recently the brand put the leering faces of (former Met) Keith Hernandez and (former Knick) Walt "Clyde" Frazier into a couple's bedroom. You don't have to delve into the 1980s, the era of Brett Kavanaugh's alleged sexual misconduct, to find those: They date from 2010 and 2015 respectively.

Just For Men's new campaign follows a wave of ads—mostly this year—from grooming brands that aim to show men and their brands in a different light. They include Unilever's Axe and Dollar Shave Club; Procter & Gamble Co.'s Gillette; Edgewell Personal Care's Schick; and Harry's.

Ralph Marburger, VP of men's care at Combe, which owns Just for Men, has noticed the trend—and that played into the decision to try something different that would connect emotionally. But more importantly, after more than two decades of ads heavy on problem-solution selling of products, Just For Men needed to stake its claim on a deeper "brand purpose," he says.

The brand also needs to reach a new generation. Incorporating millennials into ads for products to cover grey hair may seem surprising, but it reflects the changing nature of the business, Marburger says. Combe research finds 60 percent of U.S. men now have facial hair, which can start turning grey when they're in their mid-20s, so coloring mustaches and beards increasingly is the category entry point.

"It's probably a more diverse group of guys consuming our advertising than before," Marburger says. "The definition of what it means to be a man has changed."

That includes more involvement in child rearing, more men being the primary grocery shoppers in their households, and less of their identities tied up in what they do for a living, he says.

But Just For Men is only the latest in a series of brands to get this.

It started with Axe, which spent more than a decade making ads where women lost their minds and control of their sexual urges when confronted by the brand's fragrances.

Cindy Gallop, in her days as CEO of Axe's agency BBH, New York, once defended these ads as not offensive to women because they were regularly tested with women.

Then two years ago, Axe went the route of inclusivity and debunking masculine stereotypes under new agency 72andSunny.

That was followed by ads that hewed closer to the old approach, albeit more nuanced, of men using their confidence and savvy, not necessarily the fragrances, to win more restrained attraction from women who, aside from longing glances, kept their wits about them.

Procter & Gamble Co.'s Old Spice decades ago abandoned its ads showing women pining for their men away at sea.

Work of the past decade from Wieden & Kennedy has been more about being weird and funny than combating stereotypes. But even Old Spice last year had Denver Broncors linebacker Von Miller telling his coach "I'm delicate," albeit somewhat facetiously.

This year the floodgates of male vulnerability opened wider. Harry's got the tears rolling in February with work from GSD&M telling the story of a boy confiding in a space alien about his lost-in-space dad.

P&G's Gillette followed in September with new work from Grey that reframed its old "The Best a Man Can Get" selling line. When it started in 1989, "the best" was mainly about traditional markers of male success and attracting women with big hair—though it did contain some brief glimpses of father-son bonding.

The most recent "Your Best Never Comes Easy" work is about a dad helping his son overcome having only one hand, and then making it to the NFL.

Unilever's Dollar Shave Club mostly had been about gags pointing out how expensive and hard-to-buy its rivals were. More recently, the brand went more for an emotional connection, acknowledging that all kinds of men—some gay, transgender, insecure or unattractive by conventional standards—use its products.

Edgewell's Schick also has dumped the hunky male shavers of yore in favor of celebrating the many kinds of guys who use its products in new work from MullenLowe.

It's a far cry from a 1983 version with a razor duel that ended in a sort of menage a trois involving two square-jawed cowboys and a model.

None of this ensures that Keith Hernandez and Clyde Frazier won't be back someday.

Marburger, who's been with Combe for 17 years, shot his first commercial with "Keith and Clyde," he says. "They're great spokespeople. They are on hiatus now. They've been on hiatus before. For this campaign, we felt it's the right thing to use everyday people and not celebrities."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article, based on information provided by Just For Men's PR agency, said the Amp Agency, Boston, created the Just For Men ad. It was Amp's New York office.

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