Barrel-chested hunks have long been the workhorses of the branding realm. Some—Mr. Clean, the Marlboro Man—were born on the drawing boards of postwar Madison Avenue. But as recently as 2010, with “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like,” Old Spice proved that pecs and biceps never quite go out of fashion.
That is, until they do. Heads turned in March when the Brawny paper towel brand sent its resident hunk packing for the first time in 43 years—and put a woman on the wrapper.
Then, in a fillip worthy of marketing textbooks, Brawny one-upped itself by putting Ellen DeGeneres there—and getting the pack of paper towels on her TV show.
It had been a long time coming. The Brawny Man had stood front and center on the package since 1974. The reason for his long tenure was that, through various haircut and wardrobe adjustments, a hunky guy had always been a metaphor for brand performance: He was strong, durable and dependable, just like you’d want your paper towels to be.
It’s anyone’s guess why it took so long for everyone to realize that a woman could also be all of these things. Last year’s “Strength Has No Gender” campaign finally cast women in place of the Brawny Man—but only in the media, not on the packaging. So when 2017 dawned, it was obvious what the next marketing step should be.
“This was the first time a woman’s been on the pack,” related Georgia-Pacific’s vp of marketing activation Laura Knebusch. A woman on the wrapper “became a way to put an exclamation point on the program,” she said. “This year we wanted women to see themselves as strong and resilient, and one way to do that was to show them on the packaging.”
While designers created a female mascot in keeping with the familiar character traits (she’d wear a red lumberjack shirt, but also sport red lipstick), Knebusch’s team made a list of “key influencers” to target. DeGeneres was among them. With little hope of punching through—“this wasn’t a paid integration,” Knebusch stressed—Brawny sent a pack of paper towels to the popular NBC show, including a one-off gift: a custom pack of paper towels with DeGeneres’ likeness on it.
It was anyone’s guess what would happen next, but the host (whose Facebook following stands at nearly 27 million) responded by pulling out the limited-edition packaging in front of cameras on March 13, using it as a counterpoint to a segment on the advertising industry’s less-than-stellar portrayal of women over the decades. But the bigger coup came the following day, when DeGeneres showed off the paper towel package with her face on it.
In short, it was a twofer—on a show with over 3 million daily viewers, and for a modest outlay. “We were very pleasantly surprised,” Knebusch said. “We were able to the drive the message further than we expected.”
With a creative assist from agency of record Cutwater, Brawny had already refreshed the brand’s image in 2015 with its “Stay Giant” campaign, which de-emphasized the maleness of the mascot—by obscuring his face—in favor of a gender-neutral message of personal empowerment. In 2016, the brand took things further with “Strength Has No Gender.” Timed to International Women’s Day, the initiative showcased four high-achieving women in TV spots and social media platforms, dressing all of them in the signature red flannel shirt. This year, as women’s history month approached, Brawny saw an opportunity to advance its messaging another step.
Despite the “Strength Has No Gender” campaign having introduced the concept of casting women in place of the Brawny Man, the mascot had remained on the packaging. Putting a woman on the wrapper, said Knebusch, “was really going to make a statement about how strongly we believed in this idea.” There’s something about the physicality of the packaging, she added, that shows consumers that a brand has committed. Knebusch said it was “inspirational to our core consumer … to see themselves on the package.”
On the eight-pack roll, CMA Design created a first-time Brawny woman. To keep the brand’s long-standing aesthetic in place, she appeared in the customary red-and-black buffalo-check shirt and in the hands-on-hips pose that consumers were used to. And while the new mascot’s face was shown only below the temples, this was clearly a woman—in figure, and down to the red lipstick. The eye-popping package—sold throughout women’s history month—was available only at Walmart.