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In 2002, there was a show on Comedy Central called The Man Show, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla. It featured a buxom dance troupe fondly called the “Juggies.” Every episode ended with a segment titled “Girls Jumping on Trampolines.” It ostensibly poked fun at manly “stereotypes” while simultaneously celebrating them. It was the perfect cultural moment for Axe.
That was the year that Unilever chose to launch the pungent body spray, which had been sold in France since 1983, into the US. Axe was a pretty immediate smash hit with the under-25 male crowd. A generation of young guys walked around in a cloud of manufactured olfactory sexuality that they bought for three bucks at the drugstore.
Axe’s in-your-face, sometimes tongue-in-cheek ads became a hallmark of the brand. The message was unequivocally “Axe will get you laid, dude!” For many years, the brand referred to this in its ads as “the Axe Effect,” notably featuring Hillary Clinton in 2008 wearing Obama and McCain buttons. But usually it just featured hot women running after men who probably didn’t deserve them, like in this terrible “Dumpster Diver” commercial. (Axe was known as Lynx in other countries, and those commercials and ads were often even worse.)
Now Axe has shifted its focus from groin to brain. While the brand’s message in the last few years has been less testosterone-laden than in its heyday, in 2016, Axe underwent a total 180-degree repositioning. It released a video entitled “Find Your Magic,” which now has more than 10.5 million views. It starts off by asking “Who needs a six-pack?” and goes on to show a guy with a big nose, a man dancing in heels, a fella with a big beard snuggling some kittens, and — gasp — a man pleasuring a woman. Old Axe guy would surely call new Axe guy a cuck.
The crazy thing? The ad is really good. It also resonated with a lot of viewers. Comments on the video include: “this was so progressive and body-positive that even as a woman I felt it,” and from a guy: “Took them about 40,000 years to realize that the hypermasculine, stereotyped male isn't really realistic for the majority of men in society. But thank God they got it, and got it right...”
Rik Strubel, the global vice president for Axe, proudly notes that women are an active part of the messaging now, rather than a mere object of the male gaze. “We saw that [women] seemed to be the strongest driver of sharing the film and saying, ‘Great, well done, that’s the kind of man we want.’ For example, there’s the girl driving the car, not the guy,” he says. “It’s just a little concept, but that was really picked up as a positive thing and that encouraged us as well.” The fact that Axe was lauded for showing a woman driving her boyfriend around shows just how far the brand was from any sort of message of gender equality.
Axe followed up in May this year with another campaign called “Is It OK For Guys?” with a video that showed a diverse group of young men asking Google queries like “Is it OK for guys to wear pink?” and “Is it OK to not like sports?” It currently has more than 550,000 views, while the English-accented Lynx version has over two million. In a press release about the new campaign, the brand even uttered the phrase “toxic masculinity.” Axe has gone introspective, y’all.
This was not a sudden awakening for the company, but rather the culmination of several years of research, going back to 2014. “We found something quite common across different countries,” says Strubel. “We found this notion of ‘I am not the guy that my father used to be. I want to express myself in more fluid ways of masculinity today.’”
Axe partnered with a research company that primarily focuses on men’s issues, Promundo, as well as the United States Institutes of Peace, to unveil some research about what they are calling “The Man Box,” meaning men feeling liked they’re boxed in to certain behavioral expectations. The research revealed that a majority of men in the US, the UK, and Mexico felt pressure to act strong even when they were scared, to be the primary breadwinners, and to not ask for help with personal problems, among other things. The consequence is that these men are more likely to have perpetrated bullying and sexual harassment. Axe has also teamed up with anti-bullying organization Ditch the Label and The Representation Project, which is screening a film at college campuses called The Mask You Live In, featuring boys and young men “negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity.”
Such a change in marketing direction necessitates a change in scent. Axe, after all, sells fragrance. Axe’s longtime perfumer, Ann Gottlieb — she also designed multiple fragrances for Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs, and Oscar de la Renta — conceptualized the newly released fragrance, called You. Previous scents have included Anarchy, Excite, and Dark Temptation. It’s definitely a softer, gentler Axe, though you can still buy most of the older scents.
“The brand has gone from a lot of tits and ass to introspective and finding your own self,” Gottlieb says. “It’s truly what’s happening with guys. The fragrance that would represent that is much more quiet and personal than one of these outwardly big ballsy fragrances, which is traditionally what Axe has been.” She calls You “genderless,” and indeed, its soft, musky finish doesn’t scream fuccboi. (Ballsy still sells, though. Axe’s Apollo, which Gottlieb calls a cousin to Abercrombie’s now-notorious Fierce, is still a big seller. Men’s noses may take longer to convert than their ids.)
Transitioning the message, particularly one as ingrained in the brand as Axe’s was, was not an easy sell to the higher-ups. “You need to constantly have an eye on what’s happening in society, and it’s moving so much quicker nowadays than it used to. It’s exciting for me and my team to stay on the pulse, but it’s also challenging to bring something like that to life,” Strubel says. “There were a lot of skeptics in the beginning who, rightly so, were saying, ‘Listen, you had such a powerful story here. Why do you need to change something that is working?’”
But it actually wasn’t working anymore. “When we looked at our equity scores on particular attributes, we saw they were softening and not growing anymore,” Strubel continues. “We knew that, somehow, we had lost touch with the young guys. We really dove into the research and tried to understand what is going on here and why we didn’t get the same traction we had five or 10 years ago.”
Whether or not this strategy will work in the long term for Axe remains to be seen. “The better known the brand is, the higher the brand awareness — and the harder it is to reposition,” explains Barbara Kahn, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school. Kahn says that companies usually do this in one of two ways: They either do it in tiny increments so that it happens over the course of a few years, so that consumers don’t even realize it’s happening, or they “rip the Band-Aid off.” Axe has clearly gone with the latter approach.
Axe’s customers tend to leave the brand when they hit their mid-20s, and this is both a blessing and a curse. Strubel says that it’s a constant challenge to stay relevant to each new generation of 16-year-olds who need deodorant, but it also means that Axe’s customer base may have no previously biased view of the brand, making it easier to reposition. “For a young person’s brand, it would have a higher likelihood of working than something that speaks to a 50- or 60-year-old person who has a really long memory,” says Kahn.
Tom Meyvis, a marketing professor at New York University, thinks it’s important to note that “Axe is not acknowledging its past” in these new ads. He explains that brands that reposition sometimes poke fun at their past, proving they’re in on the joke and owning their previous message, before presenting new branding. Axe didn’t do this, probably banking on the fact that new customers wouldn’t know about its former womanizing ways.
To compare this strategy with another brand trying to clean up its sexy image, just look at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s. (Carl’s Jr. and Axe happen to use the same ad agency, 72andSunny.) The burger joints are also ditching a well-worn strategy of sexually objectifying women like Kim Kardashian and Kate Upton in ads, often to ludicrous effect. The new ads clearly acknowledge that they used to use boobs to sell burgers.
Andrew Puzder, former CEO of the parent company of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s and one-time Trump-era Labor Secretary nominee, told a Fox Business Network host, “You and I may certainly like the ads we’ve been running a long time, but the younger guys can get that on the internet... They are more interested in where your beef is from.” The host, also apparently shocked that young men don’t want to be sold burgers with boobs and care about what they’re putting into their bodies, shook his head in disbelief.
Unlike Carl’s Jr., however, Axe is taking a stand here with an actual social message. For years, critics have accused Unilever, which is also the parent company of Dove, of cognitive dissonance. Axe was the pervy little brother to Dove’s socially conscious, body-positive big sister. “Axe changing its tune makes it easier for brands like Dove to seem more genuine and more sincere. It probably helps Unilever tell a consistent story,” says Meyvis, while also noting that the company still makes the controversial Fair and Lovely, a skin whitening brand sold outside the US. “I’m not sure it can totally solve the sincerity problem for a huge company like Unilever, but it does help a little bit that these two brands are not diametrically opposed anymore.”
As Pepsi’s recent tone-deaf Kendall Jenner ad proved, it’s risky to take a stand while also trying to sell stuff. But Meyvis notes that Axe probably won’t cause any controversy because its strategy is different from Pepsi’s, which seemed to suggest that it could solve racism in the US with soda. “It’s not making light of the problem, and I think that’s important,” he says. “They’re referring to the issue of toxic masculinity without making fun of it, without pretending it is not such a big thing. Also they’re not saying that they’re a solution.” Axe is merely acknowledging that men have insecurities. The social media outrage machine has thus far been quiet.
“There is an expectation now by the newer generation that they have a stake in the world we live in. And when they feel that way, they think that brands should take some sort of position on things as well because they have a relationship with brands,” Kahn says. “If they care about doing the right thing, then they want to see their brands do the right thing.” She also notes that there are probably very few people who will take issue with Axe supporting anti-bullying initiatives, so it’s a fairly low-risk proposition.
The bottom line, though, is that guys will always need to buy deodorant. Meyvis questions whether consumers even seriously bought into Axe’s former branding. “I think that people were buying Axe in the past more because it was a cool brand for young men rather than they really thought ‘I will become the chick magnet from the advertisement,’” he says. “If that were the case, of course this would be a bad decision to do this campaign. But the world changes, and what is cool for young men changes, too. To that extent, it may not be as radical a departure from the past positioning: ‘We’re the cool brand for young men, whatever is happening in the world today.’”
Toxic masculinity not being cool is a good thing for everyone.
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