Photograph by Tim Llewellyn
In the 1970s, an Old Spice TV commercial opened with a shot of a woman lounging on a corner-unit sofa covered in garishly patterned cushions, surrounded by a jungle of potted palms and ethnic statuettes—a fading hippie paradise. The brunette, wearing a one-piece catsuit with bell-bottoms two feet wide at the ankles, pages idly through a magazine. “Old Spice,” the woman muses in a breathy internal monologue. “It’s a nice smell to snuggle up to.” The scene cuts to a younger woman walking through a city park with fountains—she’s the classic NYU student type, once a staple of Woody Allen’s movies back when Woody Allen’s movies were funny. “That Old Spice—wow!” she thinks aloud. “He sure knows what he’s doing!”
You could reshoot that spot today for its unintentional comic value and it would fit right in with Procter & Gamble’s current efforts for Old Spice, the seemingly ubiquitous “Smell like a man, man” campaign.
The ads—featuring a towel-wearing, former NFL player, Isaiah Mustafa, earnestly insisting that female viewers compare their boyfriends and husbands to him while he rides a horse or a motorbike—helped Old Spice more than double sales of body wash from February to July this year. Even Old Spice deodorant sales grew by 30 percent over the same period, according to SymphonyIRI.
This turnaround took place under the supervision of brand manager James Moorhead. It was not an easy feat. Consider the situation four years ago: Unilever’s introduction of a rival brand, Axe, in the early 2000s had turned the male-grooming category on its head. Previously, deodorants had been all about product attributes like “24-hour protection.” Axe successfully dumped all that in favor of the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that if men could just smell right, then women would fall over themselves to be with them. Gillette—later acquired by P&G—tried a copycat brand by renaming Right Guard as Tag, but the effort was spiked after just a couple of years.
At the time, Old Spice had walked away from its brand. The advertising hyped Red Zone and High Endurance deodorants, all but abandoning the words “Old” and “Spice.” In some ways, the oldness of Old Spice was part of the problem. Every young man in America has a memory of his father or grandfather’s pungent aftershave—and young men don’t want to wear their father’s cologne. Moorhead, however, who is just 31 years old and has only been Old Spice’s brand manager for three years, was a loyalist.
“I started using Old Spice personally in my early teens and I was using High Endurance and Red Zone,” he says. “Over the last few years they weren’t saying ‘I use Old Spice.’ What had happened was we had lost the brand, the core, to these sub-lines High Endurance and Red Zone. We weren’t doing brand advertising, we weren’t celebrating Old Spice, the 70-plus years of heritage.”
Axe made deodorants all about sex, or at least emotional values, right at a time when Old Spice had dug itself into a technical-product-benefits hole. How to get out?
Old Spice’s former ad agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, was replaced with Wieden + Kennedy in 2006. Moorhead took the helm of the brand a year later. There was fresh blood on both sides of the client-agency partnership.
Moorhead grew up in Greenwich, Conn., and graduated from the preppy, private Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn. Competition, in the form of lacrosse and ice hockey, was bred into him from the get-go. “It goes to my core personality and the way I was raised. It’s been about competitive sports or competition my whole life. I’ve got a brother who’s a year older. We were very competitive over everything, including the food at the table,” he says. (He currently coaches high-school hockey when he’s not at work.) Moorhead graduated from Williams College with a degree in economics and went straight to P&G as an intern.