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Want to Sell Men's Grooming Products? Hire an Athlete, Not a Hollywood Star

Guys prefer 'strong, virile' pitchmen

Troy Polamalu, former strong safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers

When it comes to endorsing beauty brands, actresses are a popular choice. Think Jennifer Lawrence for Dior, Eva Mendes for Estée Lauder and Keira Knightley for Chanel. But for selling, say, anti-aging serum to men, there is a wrinkle of another sort.

In marketing men's grooming products, athletes continue to dominate. Numerous Old Spice commercials featuring former NFL player Terry Crews have gone viral. Head & Shoulders, a unisex brand that in recent years has been marketed heavily to men, uses the ex-Pittsburgh Steelers' impressively coiffed Troy Polamalu as spokesman. And since it was introduced five years ago, Dove Men+Care has tapped sports stars like Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal and Drew Brees.

Among male consumers, 74 percent report following a professional sport in the last 12 months, compared to 49 percent of women, according to market research firm Mintel. But there's much more to the strategy than fandom. Even products marketed as "pour homme" can strike some men as unmanly.

"Grooming is a topic that makes guys a little bit nervous," said Brian Boye, fashion and grooming director at Men's Health. "The men's grooming industry uses athletes because men look up to them as strong, virile guys."

Jack Black, the 15-year-old prestige brand, began a sponsorship this season with the New York Yankees that includes stadium signage as well as soap and hand lotion in the bathrooms of Yankee Stadium luxury suites. The brand has similar partnerships with more than a dozen NFL and NBA teams that often include stocking team locker rooms with product.

"It definitely helps to see athletes who generally are as manly as they come" using the products, said Alison Downs, Jack Black's marketing director. (Not to mention that fans watching from luxury boxes may be more likely to pay $23 for body wash.)

Every Man Jack, the 8-year-old line, sponsors about 65 triathletes throughout the country. Ritch Viola, the founder and a triathlete himself, said that for a brand in Target it's fitting to sponsor athletes with day jobs.

"If we paid Tom Brady as our spokesman, would anyone believe he was using $5 body wash?" asked Viola. "It's more believable that these everyday exceptional athletes are using our products."

Rather than highlight their glory on the field, Dove Men+Care paints athletes as embodying "the caring side of masculinity," like holding infants or getting daughters ready for school. The men's line has taken some cues from the "Real Beauty" empowerment campaign on Dove women's side, similarly challenging cultural archetypes for men.

"How guys define their own sense of masculinity is very much in a state of flux," said Matthew McCarthy, who, as a senior director of brand development at Unilever, oversees brands like Dove Men+Care and Axe. "When Dove Men+Care brings athletes to life, it's not to talk about their prowess in the sport, it's to show these guys' authentic back stories and that they're real men, not just athletes."

Henry Schafer, evp of the Q Scores Company, which tracks celebrity popularity, noted that athletes resonate more with men. Peyton Manning, for example, is rated as a favorite celebrity by 30 percent of men, meaning he has what the company calls a Q Score of 30, compared to a Q Score of 14 among women. LeBron James rates a 17 with men and 12 with women, while Shaquille O'Neal a 17 with men and a 9 with women.

Joe Favorito, who teaches in the sports management program at Columbia University, noted that men are uniquely engaged with athletes, via the sports section, websites, social media and fantasy sports leagues.

"If you're a guy, you're not picking up a section of the newspaper hoping to read what George Clooney did yesterday," he said. "Brands want the constant reinforcement of these athletes, not just being in an ad. They want consumers seeing these guys play, practice and engaging on social media every single day."

This story first appeared in the July 6 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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