Bad ads, big sales: how fusion went nuclear

Gillette launch defies convention, but it says razor rules are different

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Its very name, Fusion, along with its six blades and ultra-earnest ads featuring guys in white lab coats in some sort of particle-physics accelerator practically beg for parody. Critics, bloggers and newspaper reporters have obliged. Its media plan, with not one but two Super Bowl ads and a heavy dose of the NCAA basketball tournament is about as traditional as it gets.

So why, then, is the product targeted at men 30 and younger-a notoriously skeptical group hard to reach with conventional media-breaking recent records for razor launches and smashing internal sales forecasts?

predictable business

The logical conclusion would seem to be the product must really be great, or the ads are so bad they've crossed the threshold to camp. Maybe young men are less skeptical, easier to reach and/or dumber than we give them credit for. Or, it could be, as Gillette contends, that the rules just don't apply to razors.

One thing is undeniable. Fusion and Fusion Power, marketed by Procter & Gamble Co.'s Gillette, captured a whopping 55% share of the razor category in the four weeks ended Feb. 19-a better showing than the first-month performance of Gillette's own M3Power or rival Energizer's Quattro or Quattro Power, according to Deutsche Bank analyst William Schmitz, citing Information Resources Inc. data. It also captured 8.7% of the refill blade market in the period, more than Schick Quattro and Quattro Power combined, though those products had been on the market more than two years and four months, respectively. The result was to drive Gillette's average price per blade up 10%.

After five weeks, Fusion's 57% share of blade sales was 16 points ahead of Gillette's last major system launch, Mach 3, at the same stage in 1998, said Eric Kraus, VP-communications of Gillette. Fusion's five-week share of replacement-blade sales was 17%, vs. 9% for Mach 3.

"The razor business is about as predictable a business as I've seen in the consumer-products world," said one veteran of the industry familiar with the Fusion launch. And Fusion is performing exactly as predicted, only better, he said.

Gillette ran three sales forecasts from three outside vendors prior to launch, and Fusion so far is beating all three, he said. While it will be hard to fully judge the introduction for 15 to 18 months, the executive said, early indications are overwhelmingly positive.

It's not necessarily that the emerging conventional wisdom about marketing to men is wrong. It's that razors, and Gillette, are an exception, Mr. Kraus said.

"There's a different dynamic," he said. Shaving is a performance category-one of the few businesses of any kind where the most expensive product is also the best seller. Mach 3, he said, has had cumulative global sales of $16 billion since its launch more than seven years ago, more than any other Gillette or competitive brand during the period.

"So you have a group of users who are predisposed to trading up for performance," he said, "and Gillette has been able to deliver that performance."

Thousands of men who tried Fusion at home prior to launch rated it favorably on about 60 performance attributes, preferring it 2-to-1 over M3 Power, said a former Gillette executive.

Gillette also benefits from preaching to the converted. Its market shares are north of 80%, so its business model doesn't depend on converting Schick loyalists, because there aren't that many. Instead, it aims simply at trading consumers up to more expensive systems and blades, which it has done successfully for decades.

"We do not produce advertising to humor consumers," Mr. Kraus said. "That is why we do not score well on the Super Bowl. ... Our ads are entertaining enough to sit and watch, but they're not created for the event."

High scores

While the Fusion ads didn't score well with critics, they produced some of the highest copy-test scores Gillette has ever had, said a former executive. Some critics of copy testing believe it overstates results of bland feature- and benefit-laden ads with little entertainment value because test subjects don't have remotes or DVRs to zap commercials.

And the traditional media approach shouldn't be written off either, despite fragmentation, ad zapping and all the other assaults on the mass media landscape, because Gillette's media buys are heavy enough to come as close as possible to forced viewing. Viewers of major sporting events such as the Super Bowl, the Daytona 500 and the NCAA basketball tournament are far less likely to channel surf during commercial breaks than viewers of other less-engaging programming, Mr. Kraus said.
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