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Critiquing Gillette – Aryeh Cohen-Wade,

January 24, 2019

| Bill Gullan |

Critiquing Gillette

Aryeh Cohen-Wade ( and Bill Gullan (Finch Brands)

  • Brand consultant Bill on Gillette’s controversial new ad on masculinity
  • Bill explains what a brand consultant does
  • Why Gillette took a big risk
  • Was a conservative backlash part of Gillette’s plan?
  • Was the ad a success?
  • Pepsi’s disastrous political ad and Nike’s successful political ad
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Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all! This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique brand consultancy, and we’re happy that you’re with us.

Bill: Another thing I was happy about in the last few days was an opportunity to participate in a longer-form conversation about a topic that has generated a lot of conversation in our industry, as well as beyond, and that is the seemingly new advertising approach of the Gillette brand about manhood and toxic masculinity and all these other issues that people feel strongly about.

Bill: The platform on which this conversation took place is called, and as an old political science geek, I’ve been a long-term listener and viewer … there’s a video format as well as a podcast … of Bloggingheads, because the discussions that they have, the debates that they have, are very respectful and literate. They tend to feature … I don’t know if “politics” is the right word, but cultural and political issues and topics through the lens of academics and journalists and others, and so when the Gillette thing broke, and I was thinking a lot about it, and a lot of people were talking about it, I reached out to my co-participant in this conversation to see if it was a topic that they wanted to entertain, and they did, so we’re glad to rebroadcast that conversation in this platform today, which is a little different for us.

Bill: But in true Real-World Branding fashion, our perch here is not just, “Hey, what did we think, as men?” or, “How do we feel about this campaign?”, but more, “Why might they have done it? How well did they do it? What do we think they’re gonna do next?” et cetera, and kind of a cheat sheet for some of the topics that we get into … or at least, some of the points that I express on here … is, first of all, they had to do something. Gillette is in a category that has been … to use an over-used word, I guess … disrupted in very meaningful ways by Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club and these other sorta new concepts.

Bill: Their market share … Gillette’s has … gone from somewhere in the 70s to somewhere perhaps below 50. They’ve dropped prices. They’ve had a decent last quarter, but prior to that, it’s in the midst of steep declines that don’t show any signs, necessarily … at least in a long-term way … of abating, because the category’s different and it’s challenged, and yes, they compete with Schick, but these other new concepts have product innovation on their side. They have a really clear brand voice. They have a really innovative distribution model, in terms of subscriptions. They’ve disintermediated the category from Gillette’s previous and still current primary presence in food, drug, and mass outlets where the shopping experience is kind of uninspiring and perhaps overwhelming.

Bill: A lot of things working against Gillette, and so it was interesting, and I think probably appropriate for them to try to do something dramatic to drive interest and help reverse the trends of the business.

Bill: We’re also … in the branding world, and at Finch here … we are suckers for big, bold ideas. A lot of folks, and particularly large consumer products companies, are risk-averse, and with good reason. So when someone tries to do something that has some heft to it, I applaud the effort, regardless of the content.

Bill: That said, I think there’s an open question as to whether this was the right move, and part of that is how they follow up. Part of it, also, is something that is this kind of political and this controversial and this, in some ways, much of a lecture to their core customers to whether or not that was the appropriate business strategy.

Bill: We’ll get into all of that in this conversation, so enjoy this rebroadcast or co-broadcast of the video blog Culturally Determined from Bloggingheads, with me as a guest, and the topic is Gillette.

Aryeh Cohen-Wade: Hi! Welcome to This is Culturally Determined. I’m your host Aryeh Cohen-Wade. My guest today is Bill Gullan. Bill, could you introduce yourself?

Bill: Sure! Hi, Aryeh, thanks for having me. I’m Bill Gullan and I’m the president of Finch Brands, a Philadelphia-based brand consultancy that works with many consumer product companies on many different things, such as messaging and consumer targeting and market research.

Aryeh: Thank you for joining us today, Bill.

Aryeh: So you actually reached out to me to have this discussion, to talk about the recent ad by Gillette that was posted online and has sparked a lot of conversation. I was thinking, this is the most conversation about one single ad since probably the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad—

Bill: Sure.

Aryeh: Which was around two years ago. So these things don’t pop up that often.

Aryeh: If you haven’t seen this ad, I would encourage you to Google it. Just Google “Gillette ad” and I’m sure it’ll be the first result. It’s 90 seconds, you can watch it and see what it’s all about, but can you just … how would you describe this ad to someone who hasn’t seen it?

Bill: Well, it’s kind of a Rorschach test, I think, in terms of what you see. I reached out, a.) because I enjoy this platform and I’ve been a listener of it, but b.) I thought a long-form conversation about this in a space such as this is warranted.

Bill: I mean, the ad seems to be a large sort of sweeping brand ad that is intending to play off of Gillette’s heritage as … “the best a man can get” has been that slogan for probably 30 years. It’s a leadership brand now within the Procter & Gamble umbrella, and they had, at one point, over 70% market share. Really what the ad is, is sort of a long-form call to action … or at least I interpreted it as a long-form call to action … for men to, in some ways, reinvent … or at least renew … masculinity around terms that were maybe more in keeping with where the world is going, and I think the tagline or slogan that closes the ad is “the best a man can be,” if I’m recalling that correctly—

Aryeh: I think that’s right.

Bill: So there’s a commerce-based conversation to be had about this, and whether it’s sound business or brand strategy, and then, of course, as you might imagine, the usual suspects have interpreted it as yet another volley in this larger culture war. So on a bunch of different levels, you’re right, there’s been a ton of reaction, and in our private conversation, you indicated you weren’t sure how long that shelf life was gonna be, but I’m not so sure I agree. It really is reflective of a lot of the dialogue that seems to be happening across a bunch of different platforms.

Aryeh: So in the ad, you see different vignettes linked together. Some of them involve bullying and teenagers bullying each other. There’s a kind of slightly surreal scene at a barbecue where there’s a long row of hundreds of fathers barbecuing, and they’re watching … without intervening … some young boys fighting each other, and then there’s some kind of … there’s things that are more directly related to the issues that Me Too has brought up — Is that … that’s right?

Bill: Well, I mean, the phrase “toxic masculinity” appears in the ad, and I think some of the criticism … particularly from voices … maybe on the right, I don’t wanna stereotype it … does key in on a couple of images and words or phrases that either float through or are voiced over, and that’s one of them … “Me Too,” obviously, in there with the hashtag, and then “toxic masculinity” and some of the other images, but … I think part of the reaction, and maybe the fact that it is a bit of a Rorschach has to do with … you’re talking about some of these images, I mean, there are … this bullying conversation, for example.

Bill: One of the montages is of this boy … and it’s very affecting, I mean, I have a son in kindergarten, a daughter in third grade, I mean, this does definitely hit you … of a mom consoling a son who’s being bullied online, and being called a freak and all these other words.

Bill: But it’s interesting. I mean, some of the behaviors that are being cited in this ad, I think are largely and almost overwhelmingly agreed to be across the line. Society has already sort of begun to deal with them.

Bill: And then there are others that are more sort of, “Boys will be boys.” That’s one of the frames and phrases that’s repeated in the ad that they seem to be taking target at, and last I checked, there’s not a ton of a “boys will be boys” defense of cyber bullying. Or of Harvey Weinstein’s conduct.

Bill: So there is a conflation of behaviors that are stereotypically associated with being male, in America and elsewhere, some of which have been … I think rightly … sort of drummed out of polite society, and others of which may be closer to the line. There’s some workplace stuff in there. You know, it’s a bunch of images, as you say, some of which are drawn from the headlines. They have Terry Crews testifying on Capital Hill.

Bill: And other of the images are sort of almost advertising creations. This huge hundred-man barbecue.

Aryeh: Yeah.

Aryeh: Okay, why don’t we pause for one moment, and can you explain your role … and what exactly it means to work at a brand company versus and advertising company? Is it like what we saw in Mad Men, or is it something different?

Bill: I have a Don Draper quality, I think.

Bill: That’s a good question, and for those of us in that world, the lines aren’t even as clear. What we do … at least at my firm … is we counsel brands on big issues. Who are we? What do we stand for? Who’s our target? What are the values that we seek to use to differentiate ourselves? How do we connect?

Bill: And one of the artifacts of a process of brand development may be advertising. It may be packaging, it may be product naming, it may be all sorts of downstream social media, all sorts of downstream elements that are designed to activate the commercial potential of a brand. So we define brand as the sum total of the actions that you take to express your difference.

Bill: And so where we focus is very far upstream, which is helping brands … and we’ve worked with parts of Procter & Gamble. We worked with a lot of other big consumer-facing companies and typically what we’re doing is often conducting market research to understand the consumer mood, the choices they have, and to help brands differentiate themselves, in terms of the message.

Bill: And yes, that does bleed in, of course, to their creative approach, and we have a team that does create advertising, that does create names and logos and packaging and all of those other artifacts, but I think the distinction might be that advertising agencies … and I think one of the big shops called Gray is the one that is behind this campaign … advertising agencies are often working as Don Draper did, sort of from campaign to campaign. “What’s the next way in that’s gonna capture people’s attention, or compel them to take an action, or to think about us a certain way?”

Bill: So brand and advertising are very related. I would deem advertising to be really an artifact of what a brand is and how a brand seeks to compete and win. I’m not sure how much that demystified things, but I think the lines are a little clearer, maybe, when you’re on the ground.

Aryeh: Yeah.

Aryeh: So is there such a thing as the famous scenes portrayed in Mad Men, of the pitch meeting where … are you the one playing the Don Draper role in trying to sell a company on the vision that you came up with?

Bill: Yeah, I mean, I’m drunk in the corner, smoking, looking at all the people walk by.

Bill: No. I mean, yeah, obviously that’s a dramatized and very historically … maybe accurate … it’s a period piece … but yeah. I mean, today we are in pitch meetings where we are coming back to clients of various types and sizes and challenges, and trying to convey to them the importance of embracing an idea that we’re putting forth.

Bill: Often, in our world, market research … and I know Don Draper, in his world, was very dismissive of the woman who was trying to bring the voice of the consumer into their board room. He was much more intuitive and vision-driven, and I think there’s probably still some debate. I mean, Apple was famous for not … you know, there’s a time to listen and a time to lead, right? Steve Jobs never wanted to do focus groups, and perhaps that’s because no consumer’s gonna tell you, “You know what I need is this little thing that’s gonna play my music.” They don’t know what an iPod is. And so you provide leadership and show it to them, and then they can’t get enough of it.

Bill: But in our world, we’re doing a lot of research. In fact, earlier this week, when we were discussing this on Twitter, I was in Chicago, operating focus groups for a leading wine and spirits company in the consumer realm with the express task of helping them untangle why one of their brands is underperforming, and help them define a message, as well as a target. Who is is that we’re focused on, and then how do we want those folks to regard us so that we can compel them to take action?

Bill: And so I’m sure, in the case of this campaign, as well as the over-riding brand direction that it represents for Gillette, I’m sure that this agency … whether is was Gray or whether there was another firm that was working on research … came back and told them things. Which is why I’m loathe to criticize it, and I’m always loathe to criticize campaigns that come through a process that I haven’t necessarily been exposed to, because often those insights really reveal a lot about what’s happening or what can happen in the market place.

Aryeh: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Aryeh: Okay, so when you first watched this ad … I assume you probably heard about it the same way most other people did, is kind of seeing people on Twitter buzzing about it … but what were your initial thoughts?

Bill: First of all, “Why is Gillette trending?” … I’m sure they appreciate …

Bill: So here’s a little bit of the context that … Gillette’s hurting. The razor category, like many others, has been … to use the popular word … has been disrupted by Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club and these other, more nimble companies with a different sort of model of distribution, that have really connected, materially, with consumers. Gillette had, at one point, over 70% market share. Most recently, I think I saw that’s at 50 or below. And that’s not because Schick is beating them, it’s because these new concepts have entered the market. These are new channels. These are friendlier, more approachable brands that don’t have the intermediary of a retail store, so they’re selling online. They’re convenient. The subscription model’s different.

Bill: So long story short, Gillette has dropped prices as if off a cliff. A 12-or-more-percent price drop in consumer products is almost unheard of in such a short period of time. Their model used to be this hub and spoke. It was, you buy the razor, and then these really expensive replacement blades, and they’re advertising used to be about, “change your blades, change your blades!” You know, they had a song, if you remember. I think it was Gillette who had a jingle out…

Aryeh: I don’t recall that.

Bill: I’ll never forget it!

Bill: But while you’re hirsute with your beard, guys like me … I gotta change my blades, or else it’s gonna hurt! So they got me to believe that, and over time … I mean, that was their business, and they were accumulating share, and … they’ve been disrupted. Prices have dropped. They’re struggling. So they need to do something. There’s no debate. And from a business perspective, I said, “Yes, they need … ” You know, had I been asked last week about Gillette, I’d say, “Tough category, tough competitive set, they need to do something.”

Bill: And brands that are placed in this box need to marshal all of the services at their disposal … be it technical innovation to create new products, which is gonna strengthen Gillette, that transform the category or put forth a new value proposition … or they can do it through advertising that breaks through, or they can do it … there’s a variety of ways they can do it, but I think they’ve taken a page … my sense, my interpretation is … there are brands that are valued that lead with values.

Bill: This last year’s Super Bowl, everything’s about corporate social responsibility. You see Tom’s and Warby Parker and these other brands that have really taken the marketplace by storm, where a part of their message is about what they value. Even longer-term brands like Patagonia … Patagonia’s all about activism. I mean, yes, they’re about style, but … you know, Ben and Jerry’s.

Bill: So there’s long-term, as well as new-order brands, that use this sort of naked approach to a value system as a way to connect, and I’m sure Gillette probably saw that as one of the avenues.

Bill: So we respect the desire to take bold and decisive action, because the second thing I’ll say is that big companies like Procter & Gamble, and brands like Gillette, are notoriously risk-averse. It’s, “Another line extension. Let’s have five blades or six!” I mean, that’s how they work, because there’s a lot … they’re jeopardizing.

Aryeh: Just to cut in, when I started shaving as a teenager, the Mach 3 had just come out, and then people were making fun of it because I guess previously it had always been one or two blades, and then there was an Onion article in the late ’90s that was one of their fake editorials, and the headline was, “Fuck It, We’re Doing Five Blades.”

Bill: Right! Absolutely!

Aryeh: Right. Written by the CEO of Gillette, and then it actually did happen. 10 years later, they came out with the five blades. So—

Bill: But where do they go next, right?

Aryeh: Yeah, right.

Bill: So it’ll be six.

Bill: But I’m taking the long, blathering way around the barn to say two things: from a business perspective, they had to do something, A; and B, I appreciate, and find very refreshing, big, bold brand ideas.

Bill: So those are my immediate business reactions.

Bill: Now, my immediate, “I’m a dad, I’m a citizen, I’m a consumer of culture” reaction was, “Ooh! This is tough!” And the reason I had that reaction, I think, and I didn’t have maybe the hysterical reaction that some did one the … you know, on the right, you see, “This is an attack on men!” On the left, you see … I think the guy in [fast company 00:17:01] … guy or gal, I couldn’t tell, based on the name … but was saying, “Well, why aren’t they boycotting Fox News as an advertiser?” So the crisis continues.

Bill: So from that perspective … the ad didn’t hit me … I mean, it landed in a dissonant way to me. I think there was very clear and obvious terrain to send this message, but not in this way. Send it through the lens of … maybe showing these images on TV, or showing them in the way that they showed them, but in some way bringing home the belief that the real man, so to speak, the one that they cater to, the one who you don’t hear about, who isn’t involved in all this malfeasance, is … this is really what masculinity is. It’s not Harvey Weinstein, it’s not …

Bill: So could you have celebrated the man and delivered the same message that there’s sort of a future approach to masculinity and avoided alienation? I don’t know. I mean, some people say all PR is good PR. I don’t agree. And now, while I don’t think this boycott is gonna be long-lived … people throwing their razors down the toilet … I do think it’s a missed opportunity for Gillette to sort of re-enforce their voice, or what they see as their voice, of masculinity, but do it in a way that is celebrating the fact that 98% of us already, at a barbecue, see kids beating the hell out of each other, we’re gonna stop it. Or don’t engage in sexually harassing behavior.

Bill: And that’s where the conflation issue, to me, kinda struck, which is if you conflate behaviors that everyone knows, obviously, are bad, and are even sort of drummed out of society, with things that are maybe a little bit more interpretive or controversial, you create more eyeballs, you have the predictable response, but I’m not sure that you get anywhere, in terms of driving product.

Aryeh: Yeah, that’s interesting and there’s a lot there. I mean, it seems very unusual for an ad to criticize potential customers in a way, almost purposefully alienate them. When they were coming up with this, do you think they knew there would be a backlash, and that that would help them, in a way, because people are still talking about it? We’re talking about it. This is the first Bloggingheads ever devoted to a razor commercial, as far as I know.

Aryeh: So I guess I’m a naturally cynical person. How cynical was this attempt to just get people to talk about the brand, if they weren’t before, versus … do they actually care about some sort of crisis of masculinity, or do they really just care about selling razorblades?

Bill: Well, I’m cynical, too, and I’m part of that … whatever the equivalent is of the military industrial complex in our industry. I mean, I’m part of it. I’m a cog in the wheel of helping brands be different and be successful and activate their full potential, so of course …

Bill: The quotations that came out from the brand manager and others, if you take them at their word, they absolutely expected, and in fact courted some level of controversy here. There is no doubt that Gillette has been mentioned in a variety of places, in a much more urgent way, this week than last week. And maybe than ever before. So there’s no doubt that part of the goal here … and as noted, this is what this brand and business needs to do … is to create social currency around this, and there’s no better way, perhaps, than wading into a dialogue that is fraught, in some ways, but full of strong opinions. There’s a reason why Super Bowl ads … particularly in the Trump era … go a little bit further.

Bill: I do think, though, that there are a couple of questions. From a consumer perspective, is this the future we want? Where every brand choice is some expression of political belief?

Bill: But from a commercial consultant’s perspective, there’s probably a couple rules that you sorta need to follow if you’re gonna wade into territory like this.

Bill: First, the brand needs to have standing, and I think to your point … yes, they’ve always served men, but I wonder the degree to which Gillette authentically can either point to in the past or point to in the future, activity … you know, they’re gonna donate a bunch of money, they say, to certain foundations that support masculinity, and that’s all well and good, and that probably squares the circle, but I’m not sure the degree to which Gillette ever sought or really has standing to lecture or encourage their audience to act a certain way.

Bill: So it’s one of the reactions that we’ve been seeing on Twitter are people just rejecting the whole concept of their razors telling them how to act. How about you shave my face and do it in a way that doesn’t hurt? That’s been one of the strings of comments. So [inaudible 00:21:24] real question about standing.

Bill: And then, you remember a couple of years ago on the Super Bowl during the year … I guess two years ago, when everything was political … Audi comes out with this “close the wage cap” ad out of nowhere, and I don’t even know that you ever saw it again.

Bill: So on that commercial, you had Airbnb standing up against the travel ban. They had standing. That’s a brand that is about connecting people across borders. Their customer base is overwhelmingly the, air quotes, “elite” group that is on the left and traveling and really wanting to experience the vibe in these new cities. That’s what Airbnb is. It makes sense for them to stand up for something that way. They have standing, and it connects with their audience.

Bill: But Audi closing the wage gap … when their entire executive team is men, they’ve never said anything about the issue before, and they never were going to afterwards … is crazy! It’s so cynical, and it reeks of just glomming onto something for eyeballs. And the Super Bowl’s maybe a time to do that, but it didn’t do anything.

Aryeh: Yeah.

Aryeh: And then there’s the kind of … it would be one thing if they were like … Warby Parker donates glasses to people in third-world countries or whatever, who don’t have them, so we can all pretty much agree that’s a non-controversial thing. But then there’s this other … they’re not just saying, “We’re giving a million dollars to Doctors Without Borders.” They’re taking a kind of political stand. So much so that there were a lot of people who immediately got pissed off.

Aryeh: There’s a quote that [Amanda Mull 00:22:52] in The Atlantic did a piece on this, and she interviewed … I’m gonna mispronounce this … [Pankaj Bhalla 00:22:58], who’s the North American brand director for Gillette. He said, “The intention was not to be political at all, but I think it is important to stand for more than the product’s benefit that you provide, and I think that’s the expectation of our younger audiences.”

Aryeh: So there’s a couple things there. One’s the generation gap angle, but then there’s also, “Oh, we’re not being political!—”

Bill: Yeah. That’s disingenuous, I think. Or ill-informed. I don’t know if anyone’s been part of this dialogue … and “dialogue” may not even be the right word, but … sorry I interrupted, but yeah, that quote … second half of the sentence, I agree with. We’re always telling brands to stand for something. But the first part of it seems a little bit incredible to me, just given the nature of the debate and discussion around these types of issues.

Aryeh: Right.

Aryeh: So as our video audience knows, I’m not currently shaving, because I have a beard, but I was a Gillette man, or whatever, for a number of years, and the reason was because when I was a teenager, my birthday at some point … 16 or 17 or 18 … I got a coupon in the mail from Gillette that was for a free razor with a handle and the razor. And so that would be my first safety razor or whatever the category is called. And so I got it, and then once you have it, as you said, it’s the hub and spoke thing. You gotta keep buying the blades, you gotta buy a new handle. So I was with Gillette for a number of years. I guess I never thought they stood for anything, aside from cutting the hair off of my face. I couldn’t have told you any mood association with the brand or anything. It was just … it’s a pretty simple thing of a sharp piece of metal that you’re pressing against your skin. This isn’t like a car or something.

Aryeh: So I was thinking, “Who is this really appealing to?” It has to be young people, because that’s when you make the decision of what brand you’re going in with. Some person threw their Gillette razor in their toilet and took a photo of it and put it on Twitter, and this went viral because it was so silly—

Bill: Yeah. It is silly.

Aryeh: But I’m guessing that’s an older person who was doing that, whereas the younger person probably wouldn’t care that much either way…

Bill: Not a very plumbing-aware person, either, ’cause that’s just not gonna work. That razor’s gonna be problematic in the toilet.

Aryeh: Yeah, and you can’t flush it, so you have to reach into your own toilet and pick it up again. So that was kind of a stupid stunt to pull.

Aryeh: But yeah, so is this really, they’re trying to target 17-year-olds and it’s just that people who are 40 years older and have been using the same razor brand for their whole life are getting pissed off at it because—

Bill: Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, yes, there’s a concept with brands called “total lifetime value,” and in different categories, loyalties are formed, at different key moments. These might be sort of trigger moments. When you deal with … one of our clients is in the hair accessories business and our research told us that there’s sort of a couple of really key moments in her life … and of course, I’m not a great spokesperson about the hair accessories category … certainly not the women’s one, having no hair and not being a woman, but … the research was pretty clear, which is she really enjoys experimenting with her hair.

Bill: And as she comes of age in the early teens and into mid-teens, it becomes a way for her to express herself, and then through college, she’s building a durable sense of style and who she is. And then into adulthood, whatever path she chooses with her life, she has some of these relationships with brands that may be based upon just simple habitual replenishment, but it isn’t about a deep connection. But in some cases it may be that this is a brand that’s stood well for her, and helped her find confidence and express herself the way she wants to, and it’s a brand that, for that reason, that really does connect. I mean, I think you were connecting with Gillette because of life stage, and because for a long period of time, they did what you wanted them to do.

Bill: I think the challenge, though, and what I do agree with, in terms of the quotation, is that the rules are now different in the razor world. Harry’s and Dollar Shave and these others, they’re connecting with young consumers on a bunch of different levels. One, it’s the subscription model and it’s sort of e-commerce-based, and that’s just lifestyle. It comes at regular intervals and you don’t have to worry about it and it’s easy to do and they have these other products and you click here and it comes. It’s easy.

Bill: But also … and I’m not sure whether they give razors to people who need them, but … their brand personality is current. Dollar Shave Club is the one I use and so I get it all the time, I can speak to it. Just the way they write, what the box looks like … the whole experience is just … they get me. And I’m not in the age target you’re talking about, but having a brand that sorta gets you is cool.

Bill: I mean, I went into Warby Parker … these are new glasses. My other ones broke! And I’m never going to Lens Crafters again! I didn’t feel cool enough, maybe, to be there … I’m in Center City, Philadelphia, there’s a store near me on Walnut Street … I know most people don’t have a store near them, but in Manhattan and elsewhere … but I mean, it felt a little too cool for me, but I kinda liked being part of it. The brand just has a tightness about who they are. They know who they are, and they can connect with you.

Bill: And you’re right. Brands that may be looked at as commodities, like Gillette, they have a fixed number of directions with which to build those connections. One is, as you were saying, through product innovation. We talked about this earlier, the different number of blades. It may be a product that just does a better job.

Bill: But other ways are through their voice, are through what they seem to believe, corporate social responsibility. There’s a finite number of paths for them to take, so I’m very sympathetic to why they may have done this. The content of it is a bit problematic to me, and again, easy to criticize from however many miles away, but Gillette, to me, always did have a manly sort of feel. The packaging approach, “the best a man can get,” the song. Some of the commercials that they ran throughout the ’80s and ’90s sort of representing it was the pinnacle. It was athletic achievement, it was suave, it was manly. It was all these things that, when you are 16 or 17, you’re sort of growing into yourself, and it’s time to shave or whatever, these are probably feelings and scents and visuals that many want to associate with themselves.

Bill: So there was a connection there, at least I think for some, and the question is, it’s a category that’s under siege, so what do you do?

Aryeh: Yeah. You’re characterizing it as kind of they had to take a risk. So do you think they pulled it off? I mean, we’re only a couple days out, so there’s no way we could actually tell if their sales are up or not, but just, as the conversation has rolled out, do you think this has been a success, from their perspective?

Bill: I don’t know. I mean, it depends on how you look at it.

Bill: From a perspective of impressions, which is sort of just the rough number of probably hits to the website or views to the ad or just the overall … you know, it’s sort of in the water, blowing in the wind. No doubt, they’re on the tips of more tongues than they’ve been, probably ever.

Bill: However, the goal of building a durable brand with deep meaning and strong performance, the jury’s out, and my guess is no. I mean, if you think about the nature of the category, they are gonna need for people to switch to them. They’re gonna need to provide an affirmative reason to gain back market share, either from Schick …

Bill: And so find somewhere in your mind the image of the person who’s gonna see this and is just like, “This is the brand for me.” Well, one of the speculations that I got when I posted the question on Twitter, and you know my Twitter following is very small, but it tends to be people in the marketing business, where I am, and so there were some interesting opinions shared, and one of the ones was, “Well, maybe one of the goals is that they have some data that says that women are making these purchases in the household, and that men aren’t buying for themselves, and that some women play the role of household CEO, and part of that means they buy the razors.”

Bill: And I could certainly see … not to get all stereotypical here … but I could certainly see some of the messages wrapped within this campaign as being very appealing to women, and Gillette has a whole side of the business … Venus and other things … that is focused on the female consumer, so we don’t wanna under-rate the potential impact and lift there. But specifically related to getting someone like me to, first of all, check my behavior and maybe evolve it in areas where it needs to be, and then second of all, embrace this brand as really being sort of a torch leading the way for the way I’m supposed to act with my colleagues and my family and my clients and the world at large. I think that’s a pretty significant stretch.

Aryeh: Right. It is, after all, only a razor. And you know, they make razors targeted at women as well. I believe my wife has some of them, and I saw people complaining on Twitter, being like, “Well, you know, you have reinforced stereotypes about women in your advertising towards us [inaudible 00:31:52] and you could do something different there.

Bill: The pink tax, right? They’re more expensive. It’s the same product. The so-called “pink tax”, where they just make it pink and then make it more expensive. I mean, that’s true. It seems true.

Aryeh: Here’s one other thing. So we’re calling … it’s like an ad and a commercial, but this is not a traditional ad or commercial, because those are on TV and they last 30 or 60 seconds. This was a web thing, and I don’t get broadcast or cable TV anymore, so I have no idea if this is airing. Maybe it is, but it would have to be in a truncated form. Maybe 30 seconds. They would have to pull off something to get the same message in just 30 seconds.

Aryeh: So how does that aspect shift things that … you can release a long ad online, it might go viral, and then … but you’re forced into this straight-jacket of the TV length.

Bill: No, that’s also a good point, because you’re either forced into it or you are taking really shrewd advantage of the fact that you’re launching this, getting all of the viral currency, but not having to pay to put it on the Super Bowl or put it anywhere else.

Bill: You probably recall that during the 2016 election cycle … my recollection, at least … was that some of the ads or concepts that had the greatest impact on shaping the narrative, the campaign never ran in any sort of media forum. They ran on social media, they ran online, they were on YouTube, they were put forth into the Twittersphere or on campaign websites. So there is a new set of rules for how to drive eyeballs—

Aryeh: And in politics, that’s kind of become a classic thing over the past decade or so, was that they make an ad that’s much edgier than they would ever air on TV, people look at it online, and then the cable news starts covering it and showing the ad. So they get free coverage that way.

Bill: They do.

Aryeh: And without paying any money. Isn’t this the case with the Willie Horton ad only ran once?

Bill: Right, something like that. And it obviously has … I mean, I think the LBJ-Goldwater-Daisy ad only ran once, too. And those are the ones we remember, so yeah, that’s a double-edged question.

Bill: If they really mean this, and it really is a shift in how they want the brand to be regarded and how they want masculinity to really be played out, across America and beyond … if they’re really committed to this and it isn’t just, as you say earlier, a cynical way to get eyeballs and become part of a conversation … we’ll see what they do. We’ll see if they do run it in broadcast. We’ll see what impact this has on their packaging. We’ll see what impact this has on what they choose to sponsor. We’ll see the impact on product development, and how the business grows. Or how it doesn’t.

Bill: My sense is that, maybe like you, that maybe it was a trial balloon. Maybe it was an attempt to glom onto a larger conversation rather than a deep-seated shift in brand direction.

Bill: I’ll give you an example. One of the campaigns that has … at least, in our industry … is regarded as being one of the most successful in the past decade or so … was when Domino’s basically apologized for their entire existence. They had gone astray and the business was suffering. They had a new CEO and they remade their pizza and they basically had this big apology campaign. This was a different time. It was before social media was as meaningful as it’s become, but that really shaped … they organized the business around that concept. From new packaging and new promotions in-store … everything was new. The whole message wasn’t just, “I’m gonna put an ad saying, ‘It’s new, give us a try,’ but we’re gonna make this a central organizing principle of how we deliver this sort of business concept.”

Bill: At it’s best … and of course, you’d expect me to say this, given the business I’m in … that’s the power of brands. Brands as sort of central flag-in-the-moon declarations of what we value and how we seek to operate and on what basis we seek to connect. We’ll see if Gillette intends this to be that. My sense is that maybe they don’t … using that political playbook of a lot of sizzle over here, and attracting some eyeballs, and then really where they’re gonna be focused is on FSI, free-standing inserts for those not in the business of how to promote … give you 15 cents off a razor and get people to buy it [inaudible 00:36:01] and have nothing to do with masculinity, and that’s often where the meat and potatoes of how that category gets bought and sold is where people are making purchase decisions at shelf.

Bill: So we’ll see what they do. As of now, all that we’ve seen is this long-form ad, their pledge to do some level of donation to undefined causes, and who knows? Who knows?

Bill: Super Bowl ads are notorious for advancing big ideas and then sort of disappearing. So I don’t know, maybe that’s what this becomes.

Aryeh: Yeah, and with the Domino’s, they … I assume … improved the quality of the pizza and how fast it got to you and so forth. I don’t … are they gonna add the sixth and seventh blades? No. It’s the same razor that it was yesterday. I assume there’s not gonna be a little hashtag Me Too emblazoned on the razor or something, so it’s much more about the psychology than some fundamental quality issue—

Bill: Right, I think that’s … sorry to interrupt, but I think that’s a mistake. I’m not saying they should put “Me Too” on the handle, but I think the strength of the competition that has changed that category is not just about marketing sizzle. It’s about distribution, it’s about overall brand voice, it’s about product, and it’s about lifestyle.

Bill: It was like GNC, which is a business that … no offense if they’re listening to watching … it’s a business that really doesn’t need to exist anymore. They have thousands of stores, but they’ve been cratering forever. You just don’t need a freestanding vitamin and supplement store, and like many leaders do, they thought their rebirth was gonna be found in a store redesign and a big campaign. Well, after that fades … and it fades pretty damn quick today … what’s left is a business with no right to exist. It’s just how it was a month ago, once that fades, and so we’re watching that brand and others like it circle the drain.

Bill: Sears, obviously, is another one, and that’s a shame for a lot of reasons, but when these messages become central principles, statements of belief that are paid off in an integrated way across the entire consumer journey, from product development to sales and marketing, of course, but into all of the other manifestations of a larger business strategy, that’s where they have the potential to really be transformative. Just like they are for these disruptors … Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club. This is just from one campaign to the next. It may have the short shelf life that you think that it will. So I’m not sure how long the debate will go on, and we’ll see what they do next.

Aryeh: Yeah, I mean, you know something else will happen. Trump will say something in the next 12 hours…

Bill: … this afternoon. Right, exactly.

Aryeh: I wanted to briefly share an anecdote that I thought about this. So I mentioned the ad with … Kylie? Is that her name? Kylie Jenner?

Bill: It was one of the Jenners, yeah.

Aryeh: Kendall Jenner!

Bill: Kendall Jenner.

Aryeh: So Pepsi did this ad, like a year-and-a-half ago. It was kind of like they took a Black Lives Matter protest and sucked out all political content, so—

Bill: And she walked right into it, yeah.

Aryeh: So it was young people marching on the streets, and they were holding signs that said, “Together,” or, “Now.” Just total nothingness. And then Kendall Jenner, who’s a model, is having a photo shoot, but she sees the young people marching outside, and she has a Pepsi, so she’s like, “I’m gonna go join the crowd,” and she joins them marching in the street, and then there’s some cops standing there looking menacing, and she hands one of them a Pepsi, and he accepts it, and then everyone’s having fun.

Bill: Yeah, the world got better, right? Immediately. Yeah.

Aryeh: With the Gillette thing, it’s been split whether people like it or not. The Pepsi one, I think, was seen as a disaster and pretty much worldly mocked.

Bill: Nobody liked it. Right. And that’s one … sorry to interrupt … you asked whether or not they knew this was happening. The Pepsi one, by all indications, I think they walked into that one. I think they walked into a left hook, because they just didn’t get it, perhaps. They were marketers and they weren’t connected … you know, all the Breitbart politics is downstream from culture. Well commerce is, too. And that is an example of … you know, I think they walked into it, but in this one … yeah.

Bill: But yeah, that one was … nobody liked that one.

Aryeh: Right.

Aryeh: So about two years ago, I was working at the University of Rochester, in the communications department, so this would’ve been after the first Me Too stuff happened, I guess … but there was a professor who was accused of sexual harassment, who a lot of people thought the faculty and the administration handled it poorly, so people were protesting, and a lot of students were protesting one day, and they had a rally, and then they were marching to the president’s office to deliver a petition or something like that…

Aryeh: Well, I worked in the basement of the main administration building, and some young students came in, and they had a container of Pepsi, and they wanted to hand out Pepsi as a symbol, to say, “We don’t mean harm. We know you guys are doing a good job, but we’re just expressing ourselves here.” I didn’t take a Pepsi, ’cause I’m a Coke person myself, but—

Bill: There you go, fair enough. Right.

Aryeh: But it was very funny at the time, that the kids are smart and clever and ironic, but also it was like, even this ad that everyone knew was a disaster and a joke, it still inspired people to take concrete action in the real world, even when they were doing something serious…

Bill: Right, in a mocking way.

Bill: Well, one of the other ads … I think you’re right, that that’s the last one that was … well, the last two. There was one in between the Pepsi one and this one, which was the Nike/Colin Kaepernick ad—

Aryeh: Right.

Bill: And that one … and again, it doesn’t seem like there’s been a ton of follow-up, but whatever one thinks, that one made sense to me. That is a brand that has historically, even from its days back in the running era with Prefontaine and others, this is a brash brand. I mean, this is a brand that’s associated with athletes, and whether it’s Michael Jordan, Republicans buy sneakers, too, or whether it’s … whatever it is, it was never maybe the bad boy Iverson kind of brand, it was not AND1, if you remember that brand.

Bill: But it was about athlete connection, and so that one made sense. Even though Kaepernick had a fairly small at least visual role, I guess he was narrating the ad, and then he turns around and … but I mean, you know, that was very much in keeping with what the Nike brand, to me, has been and is evolving into. That one seemed linear. Controversial? Yes. But linear. And that one seemed like it could potentially … yes, maybe cost them … but also gain. That was a planting a flag in the … I like to mix all my metaphors … that was planting a flag in the culture in a way that was in keeping with those who are real taste-makers and influencers in their category.

Bill: The Kylie Jenner one seemed to me like a complete just miss. Just a lack of awareness of the depth and texture of the situation that they were sort of parachuting into. Whereas this one … I don’t know. I’m as cynical as the next guy or gal, and I’m sure there was a reason here, but I think they probably anticipated the hue and cry. I’m not sure how they couldn’t have.

Aryeh: Yeah, and that one sparked a backlash from Conservatives, and people cutting their Nike socks up and setting their gym shorts on fire or whatever.

Bill: But there was also, I guess, the opposite of a backlash. Was it a front lash? There were a lot of folks who really rallied around the brand there, too. A lot of athletes, a lot of commentators, a lot of woke voices who … and again, you don’t know what the impact on sales is, but … who really saw that as a cultural flashpoint that they wanted to get behind, so … the conversation continues, and commerce here … all we kinda try to do is not to necessarily glom on to moments or movements, but to …

Bill: You know, I was a Poli Sci major way back at Davidson College. We didn’t have pre-professional stuff. We didn’t have marketing classes. I was a Poli Sci guy. Political theory was what I studied and what I was passionate about, and one of the reasons why I love branding and why I love the work that we do is that … it took me a while to sort of understand … it scratches a bit of the same itch.

Bill: I mean, brands are about systems of belief. They’re about core principles. They’re about rallying people around a structure that seems good and right and just. So in many ways … and some people may view it as a sign of the apocalypse, in terms of commerce eating everything up … but brands that connect and have devoted followings at almost a mission or purpose level, that’s exhilarating to me. And I think these ones that are kinda square pegs, that are brands that were kinda trying to do that or capture a moment in a way that feels maybe more transactional, they don’t get there. They don’t get there. But brands that are authentic, in the founding story all the way through the way they execute, the power of a brand to be not only a meaningful driver of business performance, but a meaningful impact on the way we organize and build relationships. It’s there. It’s really there. The best brands can do that. Apple, and many others.

Bill: So anyhow, it’s not unpredictable, in terms of the Twitter debate here, but there’s a bunch of layers to it that are interesting.

Aryeh: Yeah, I think it is a fascinating thing to think about, and all that. Why am I a Coke man instead of a Pepsi man? They probably taste about the same. They used to have the Pepsi Challenge and I don’t know how I would’ve done with that, but … something about Coke has worked, over the decades, to create something that makes me want to drink it.

Aryeh: Why don’t we end it there? So you are on Twitter, can you tell us your Twitter handle if we wanna follow you?

Bill: Yeah, come follow me. I can’t promise anything interesting, but it’s @billgullan, or for those who are interested in marketing and branding, our firm Finch … like the bird … Brands. I have my own podcast called Real-World Branding. Again, I’m not sure if the audience is interested in interviews with brand and business builders. We do it every other week, and it tends to be folks who take us through their career journey, and some of the key inflection points is they built the businesses that they work for or operate, and so for those interested in that, if there is any crossover, please come join us.

Bill: But either way, the platform of Bloggingheads is a rare … at least from a listener’s perspective … a rare place of debate from all over the spectrum that tends to be literate and respectful. I hope I’ve contributed to that.

Aryeh: Oh, well thank you so much for coming on. We’ll have to think about the Bloggingheads brand and how we’re doing. That one may be offline.

Bill: Fair enough.

Aryeh: So thanks, Bill. Thanks to all of our viewers and listeners, and we’ll see you again next time.

Bill: So our thanks to Aryeh Cohen-Wade and Bob Wright and the rest of the team at Bloggingheads, a.) for including me, or being receptive to my self invitation, I guess, and b.) allowing us to rebroadcast or republish his content in our own channel. I certainly would commend those listeners of ours who are engaged and really appreciate … again, I guess what we would say, sort of upscale, literate, respectful political discussion to really check out the Bloggingheads platform. It’s been great podcast content for me on long commutes and flights and everywhere else that this life takes me.

Bill: For Real-World Branding’s sake, however, there are three ways, as always, to support what we do, and we’ll be back at it with interviews with brand and business builders in our next episode.

Bill: Those three ways are to leave us a rating and a review on iTunes or wherever else you get your podcasts. That helps us make sure that our content is visible.

Bill: Similarly, click the “subscribe” button. Make sure you don’t miss one of these, and we have many great ones coming up. If you click “subscribe”, that means as soon as the content goes live, it’ll download into your phone or however else you listen to podcasts, and that’ll make sure that nothing slips through the cracks in these busy moments here in the first quarter of the year in the deep freeze here in Philadelphia and beyond.

Bill: And then the third way, and the way that I think we love the best, which is let’s keep this dialogue going. On Twitter, on social media, other channels. @billgullan, @finchbrands. We love ideas for future guests or topics. We love feedback. Our skin is thick, and we always wanna hear how we can make this as valuable as possible to those who invest some of their time with us every time one of these comes out.

Bill: So in that spirit, and with kind regards, we’ll sign off from the cradle of liberty.

About The Author: Bill Gullan

Bill Gullan is the President of Finch Brands. His nearly 30-year (ugh!) career in branding has revolved around naming, messaging, M&A brand integration, and qualitative research. He has been with Finch Brands since 2001.

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