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.
“I always wanted to be a marketer from when I was little. I had an uncle who’d been in the business. I heard P&G was the place to go and I applied in 2000 for an internship, and I wrote to some Williams grads who were at P&G,” he says. He managed to score an internship on the Olay brand. Looking back, Moorhead remembers that he was “super-jealous of the Old Spice intern and super-jealous of the Old Spice brand manager.”
Two things signaled events to come. First, Moorhead had applied for his internship online, which was not a universal job application method at the time. And second, Olay was in the middle of a brand reinvention.
Brand reinvention and online techniques were to be used in combination and to great effect when he moved to Old Spice. Moorhead was keen to get the brand into social media, and to make sure that the communication with consumers was more than just one-way. No one else was doing that. The 2010 TV spots were followed in July by a marathon ad-making session in which Wieden and Mustafa made 186 personalized YouTube responses to comments and questions posted by Twitter and Facebook users. In the days after these responses were published, the brand’s YouTube channel received more than 94 million views. Old Spice now has more than 90,000 Twitter followers and over 675,000 Facebook fans.
For the initial TV spots, the team’s key insight was that 60 percent of the time the person buying men’s grooming products is a woman. Thus the advertising had to perform the difficult task of appealing both to men — to create demand — and to women, to execute the purchase. P&G had tried several pitchmen in the campaign in an attempt to find that balance, but it was Mustafa, with his chiseled torso and ridiculously self-assured tone, who somehow appealed successfully to both demographics.
Moorhead also gave the Wieden team creative legroom. The ads were shot in a single cut, without computerized special effects. That’s really Mustafa delivering his lines, rolling a log in a lake, cutting a countertop with a circular saw, throwing a cake over his shoulder and then jumping (with the aid of an invisible harness) onto a motorcycle parked in a Jacuzzi. The spot with these scenes took about 67 takes, and Moorhead signed off on the expense of an extra day of shooting to get it right. “You can probably imagine the type of faith and courage it takes for a large corporation to allow you the freedom to do all this,” says Jason Bagley, one of the Wieden creative directors on the project. “They do get it.”
Crucially, the “old” part of Old Spice has been successfully repurposed into a self-deprecating “experience” theme. P&G even brought back the script logo, and sells Old Spice T-shirts on its Web site. (One says “I’m on a horse.”) “The core splash-on cologne and aftershave in the buoy bottle still exists and is a big part of holiday season gift-giving,” Moorhead says. “It’s still the same, the original.”
Which is why this campaign may not be your father’s Old Spice, but it may end up being your son’s.
Old Spice marketing has come a long way since its 1938 debut, when it relied heavily on nautical imagery. Back when consumers weren’t as cynical, the brand could more easily use images of clipper ships and sailors hanging out in tight white pants. Old Spice’s 1953 jingle (a borrowing of the bagpipe melody “Scotland the Brave”) even opened with a “Yo ho!” The brand toyed with landlubbing marketing themes for a few years, but has finally returned to its salty roots with Mustafa — who’s not only on a yacht, but wearing tight white pants.
James Moorhead photographed by Tim Llewellyn