Opinion: Sugar and Old Spice

It’s 2010 and apparently what’s new is a 73-year-old deodorant. Fresh off its Grand Prix award at the 2010 Cannes International Advertising Festival, Old Spice is now the talk of the social media town based on its “damn, I wish I’d thought of that” two-day social media blitz, where pitchman Isaiah Mustafa personally responded (scantily clad in nothing but his signature towel) to over 180 contacts who engaged “him” and/or the brand via Twitter, YouTube and Facebook comments.

His correspondents included key “influencers” ranging from Perez Hilton and George Stephanopoulos to Digg’s Kevin Rose and Ashton Kutcher. The social media elite (although the list sounds a lot more like traditional celebrities) was swept up in a wave of narcissistic delight, which in turn reflected itself in a mega-amplification of earned media — the likes of which have probably never been seen so rapidly and explosively.

To be sure, the commercial itself is good. Not great, but good. OK, maybe great insofar as it is highly creative, engaging, well executed and amidst a sea of clutter, sameness and mediocrity is about as TiVo-proof as the dying seconds of a tied Super Bowl game. But was it worthy of the crème de la crème of the global advertising film elite? Personally I think the beleaguered 30-second spot took another giant step back this year, especially after the BMW Films, “Campaign for Real Beauty,” chocolate loving gorillas and Honda “Cog” of yesteryear. This was a great CPG commercial, which you just get the feeling has been done before, only you just can’t quite place it. But that’s irrelevant, really.

What is relevant is that television advertising will likely never be the same after this particular approach. With a whiff, spray or spritz of 73-year old scent, the 30-second spot became a conversation starter; a means to an end; the first piece of an ever-expanding puzzle.

Gone are the days of the new media zealots begging to be sent to the shoot so they can think about how best to version, adapt and extend the original assets to the fullest extent of online’s potential. Gone are the days of lobbying for the social media navel gazers to be FedExed to the set, armed to the hilt with their HD Flip cameras, M-Audio mixers, Verizon MiFi access points and Twitter apps. Gone are the days of simply plonking a commercial on YouTube for bonus “hits.”

This is a game changer. Or at least it will be until sales go south, the CMO moves on and the agency realizes it should have locked in Isaiah Mustafa to a long-term contract and now his residual rights alone rival only LeBron James’ appearance fees.

But was this ever about sales? If it was, the results from the overarching campaign would seem to indicate a decent amount of groundswell: Although according to SymphonyIRI, in the 52 weeks ending June 13, sales of the featured product, Red Zone After Hours Body Wash, dropped 7 percent, according to Nielsen, over the past three months, sales jumped 55 percent and in the past month, they rose 107 percent. It’s hard to determine how much of this was due to an aggressive couponing campaign which was in market simultaneously, but directionally, there does appear to be a correlation between creative resonance, social momentum and sales. (See also: “Old Spice Campaign Smells Like a Sales Success, Too.”)

On the flip side, there’s the branding argument. Again — on the surface — the jury is out on that. The creative brief seems to have been transplanted into the messaging loud and clear: somewhere down the discovery path, an eager account planner noted an insight that Old Spice was over indexing against female millennials (read: Hello ladies. Look at your man . . .  now back to me).

I like to use a simple benchmark or litmus test against differentiation: if there had been no reference to a brand in this commercial, would you have known it was for Old Spice? Or if a different brand (competitive such as Axe or otherwise, like Listerine) had replaced Old Spice, would you have been any the wiser? On both counts, I’d say ownership or association is tenuous at best.

And then there’s the prime directive for Old Spice (a brand that is otherwise in perceptual purgatory insofar that it is “still” associated with my Grandfather, may he rest in peace): Old Spice: The mark of a man. It’s about as persistent and permanent in my impressionable mind as “Just do it.”

Hell, just type “Old Spice” into Google and you’ll see both the paid and organic results for the brand proudly bragging about a 73-year heritage that might resonate with a 73-year-old man, but surely not on a female millennial.

But again, perhaps none of this is relevant. After all, the campaign is the earned media belle of the ball in 2010. It’s the endless BP gushing well (but in a good way). It’s a gift to the marketing community presented on a silver platter in terms of how — finally — a campaign should be launched and ultimately sustained. It is as close to integrated as we’ll ever see.

It isn’t exactly what I’d call a “commitment,” but I’d like to give both Procter & Gamble and its agency, Wieden + Kennedy, the benefit of the doubt on this one. I actually think Wieden has shown arguably the best understanding and interpretation of social media and advertising integration than any of its competitors — most notably, Crispin, Porter + Bogusky, which don’t seem to move beyond the wham, bam, thank you ma’am of viral fad of the month.

This isn’t a perfect program, but it’s without question head and shoulders (wait, is that a competitor?) above anything else the tired and lethargic me-too industry has to offer. I won’t be buying Old Spice anytime soon, though, unless I receive my gift pack and personalized YouTube response from Isaiah, but both of those are stories for another day.

Joseph Jaffe is chief interruptor at Powered Inc. He is also the author of Flip the Funnel: How to Use Existing Customers to Gain New Ones. Contact him at jaffe@powered.com or @jaffejuice on Twitter.