Unilever's lesson to P&G: Embrace the nitty-gritty

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As one of the few people who has seen both Procter & Gamble and Unilever people in research action, I've found the differences at times striking. P&G research, even qualitative and one-on-one, tended to be category-, product- and function-focused. It, and the people doing it, had trouble escaping their left brains.

Unilever research tended to be more fly-on-the-wall, anthropological and humanistic-going to movies, watching TV, talking about sex. It treats people like people, not consumers.

In one Unilever session for Axe that involved the deepest and most awkwardly personal dive into the young-male sexual psyche I've ever seen, including role-playing exercises about loss of virginity. It seemed much more than a deodorant brand has a right to know.

By contrast, some P&Gers were outraged last year by a story in Ad Age that delved into personal details of an unnamed woman on a home visit, such as marriage counseling over her spending habits and drinking by her sons.

Admittedly, the woman was described and photographed in better detail than I, in retrospect, am comfortable with. But, surprisingly, some P&Gers wondered how things like that could be relevant to marketers. I wondered how P&Gers could question the relevance of anything so emotionally important to their consumers.

Axe's exploits

The difference is at the heart of why Unilever's advertising has been better of late. Just compare Unilever's often raunchy but occasionally poignant and romantic Axe ads to P&G's often formulaic and emotionally tone-deaf ads.

Image aside, the marketer of Axe isn't all about callous emotional manipulation. Unilever's Axe exploits men's insecurities to sell them deodorant to get lucky. Unilever's Dove tries to buck up girls' self-esteem. Arguably, they're working at cross purposes. And Axe shop Bartle Bogle Hegarty even does copy testing with moms and girlfriends to avoid offending them-a surprise to some P&Gers.

All this won't be strange to P&G much longer. Thanks to Saatchi & Saatchi, P&G's Tide brand is going out gambling with its consumers and collecting insights that can be condensed into emotionally compelling theater. The result is new advertising that has real emotional resonance in a category that doesn't.

What makes P&G a great company is that no competitor's advantage survives long. Originality is not really P&G's strong suit. Its real strength is recognizing its own weaknesses, compensating aggressively by finding ways to assimilate and optimize others' ideas, then reapplying success across brands and lands.

The deeper question, of course, is whether manipulating consumers emotionally to get them to buy soap is moral. But, then, that's the core quandary of advertising, isn't it?

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