In 2006, a one-minute spot hit American TV sets (YouTube was barely a thing yet) and promptly made history—at least in the world of deodorant.
Titled “Billions,” the eyebrow-raising, Clio-winning ad via BBH London showed hordes of young, nubile women dashing out of the jungle. Mad with desire, they stampede toward the beach. After a few seconds, it becomes clear what they are all after: an average-looking, shirtless guy. As the women engulf him, he raises his arms in triumph. And little wonder why, as the sweet, woody fragrance he just sprayed on means he won’t be sleeping alone that night.
Even if you’ve never seen the ad, you’ve likely seen some variation of it. Spots like this not only ran for a generation, but they made Axe deodorant spray a leader in its category, to say nothing of a profit engine for Unilever.
And while Axe’s shine has tarnished a bit (its Facebook likes have been slipping at 5% annually since 2017 while its Twitter following is down 7%), it’s still a force—and a smell—to be reckoned with.
“Axe continues to be the No. 1 men’s fragrance brand in the world,” Axe’s U.S. brand director Mark Lodwick said. “We’re proud of the work we’ve done.”
Not Just for Studs Anymore
Axe originated in France in 1983, though what one might call its cultural debut came in 1995 when BBH London won the account. Axe’s marketing rested on actual field research where behaviorists tagged along with 100 dudes while they hit the clubs, watching the ways they picked up—or tried to pick up—women. Unilever identified six psychological profiles of single men based on their flirting abilities, from the consummately gifted down to the “insecure novice.” Men on this lowest rung were Axe’s target.
Thus began an era of advertising—one that revved into high gear once Axe hit the U.S. market in 2002—that illustrated the “Axe effect.” Essentially, the message was that boys should spray this scent in their armpits (and all over the rest of their bodies), and the babes will come running.
The deodorant hit its peak in 2013, when Unilever CMO Keith Weed told attendees at Cannes that Axe was “the brand that has made teens into adults. All of this has been achieved with one single thought: Axe gives guys the edge with girls.”
Yet Axe had problems. Adorkable teens had taken its marketing so literally that high school hallways reeked of Axe, turning the product into a parody of itself. Worse, corporate seemed to realize only in retrospect that casting young women as chesty airheads was no longer amusing. By 2016, the brand had done a 180. Now it told guys to embrace their differences, to “Find Your Magic.”
And how’s that gone?