Sunday 20 January 2019

Worst marketing campaign ever...?

Ominous music plays. "Women, is this the best we can do, really?", booms a voiceover. Scenes play in the background of women being hysterically emotional, falsely accusing people of rape, bickering & bitching amongst each other, being ditsy blondes, and exhibiting all sorts of the worst cliched 'toxic femininity'.

"Women, we can do better", the voiceover continues. Scenes are shown of women saying to other women, come on, stop being so emotional. Saying to each other, "hey its not cool to falsely accuse people of rape". Saying, come on, treat your husband better. Women standing up to women throwing a tantrum in the workplace and saying, come on, don't be such an immature snowflake.

Voiceover concludes: "Women, we can do better than this. Buy our tampons".

Male reaction to ad:

"I thought it was a really positive and uplifting ad. It shows that not all women are emotional trainwrecks & a toxic force in the workplace, and not all of them treat men like shit. It casts femininity in a more positive light, and shows how women can stand up to other women and say, come on, stop being such a bitch and treat your man better. It's about redefining femininity for the 21st Century. It's a really positive progressive message".


Now, does anyone really think this would be a great way to sell tampons to women? And yet, this is precisely what Gillette has done, with the genders reversed, with it's latest 'the best a man can be' ad campaign. I've had to 'flip the script' here in order to make the point, as male-bashing in the mainstream media has become so pervasive that it is invisible to many people.

The objection many people have to the ad is that it has an accusatory tone, and exhibits a presumption that many/most men manifest toxic masculinity; have to be told that demeaning women in the workplace, sexual harassment, and violence is bad, because they don't already know; that they typically rationalise bad behaviour with 'boys will be boys', rather than proactively oppose it (far more common); and need to be coached on how to be better human beings.

Most of these opponents do not dispute that 'toxic masculinity' does indeed exist. However, they believe that we should instead condemn the minority of individuals who manifest it, rather than demonize an entire class/group, in much the same way we don't condemn all muslims as terrorists merely because a handful of them are. Focusing on the so-called 'positive message' at the end of the commercial overlooks the prejudices manifest in the first part of the ad, in exactly the same way my satirical ad above does - it presumes women exhibit toxic traits on such a widespread scale that they need to be coached as to how they can be fixed to make them more acceptable to civil society.

Now, my personal views on the ad don't matter, but there is plenty of evidence that I am far from alone in my objections, and that the net reaction amongst men has been overwhelmingly negative (including social media likes/dislikes and comments; I am also running a poll on Twitter which I will discuss). The reason it has attracted such negativity needs to be viewed in its proper social context, as it does not exist in a vacuum. Feminist narratives of 'toxic masculinity' have become ever more strident in recent years, but have now evidently reached a level of pervasiveness where even a masculine brand ('the best a man can get') selling a masculine product to men, feels like it is a good idea to lecture its customers on how their masculinity is toxic and needs to be fixed. So there is a 'final straw' dimension to the gravity of the fallout that needs to be borne in mind.

Unsurprisingly, the campaign was headed by a female feminist which, based on her past work, has a clear axe to grind about 'toxic masculinity'. Now why is it, exactly, that P&G though the best way to sell a masculine product to men was to appoint a female feminist into the roll with a history of anti-male campaigns, to head their brand efforts? And what made them think it was a good idea to associate their brand with radical feminist ideas, and risk alienating a meaningful portion of their customer base?

One of the reasons consumer staples companies are such great businesses is that there tends to be phenomenal brand loyalty. If you're happy with your current product, you tend to go on buying the same brand over and over again for your entire life, unless you have a good reason to switch. Men are pretty simple creatures - if the product is functional and reliable, and they have positive feelings/associations towards the brand, they will continue to buy it. And knowing what kind of razorblades to buy without giving it too much thought is one of those small things that makes life just that little bit less complicated.

Because of these buying habits, brands invest a lot of effort in ensuring customers do not have any excuse whatsoever to change brands. They invest a lot in avoiding stock-outs, for instance. When I was in my first year of university, I worked for Coke part time, driving around to supermarkets to refill shelves and build end displays. Often the supermarkets did it anyway, so I questioned why Coke was paying me a decent enough hourly rate and travel allowance to go around and do what the supermarket staff would likely do themselves. I now understand. You want to avoid the risk of stock outs at all costs, because if the shelf is empty, someone might buy a Pepsi instead, and they might conclude, actually Pepsi tastes just as good, and might start buying Pepsi thereafter. You might lose not just one sale, but a customer for life. It's not worth the risk.

So why, then, would you want to launch an ad campaign that risks alienating a meaningful portion of your customer base and giving them an excuse to switch brands? Guys that have been happily buying Gillette for 30 years will now look at the product and no longer merely see a reliable razor blade, but an embodiment of the most toxic elements of social justice activism and male-bashing feminism. Why would Gillette want to associate themselves with strident feminist ideas that are anti-masculine? It gets worse - Gillette has pledged to commit a percentage of its revenues on Gillette sales to fighting toxic masculinity, so you are actually donating to these causes when you buy the blades.

I can (sort of) understand what Gillette was perhaps trying to do. They have suffered some market share erosion in recent times, as they pushed their pricing power too far, while e-commerce has provided alternative routes to market for new entrants. This has resulting in low-cost upstarts like Dollar Shave Club emerging (now acquired by Unilever) and taking market share. P&G felt something needed to be done to stem this loss of share.

What they were clearly trying to do is enhance brand relevance by making Gillette stand for 'we believe in positive masculinity'. I.e. if I buy a Gillette razor, I am virtue signalling that I don't tolerate disrespect towards women, bullying, etc. The problem is, people don't virtue signal by what razor blade they use. They virtue signal on social media, or brands they consume publicly, but razors are consumed privately, for the most part.

That being said, it is possible P&G believes men will try to make themselves look good in front of their wives/girlfriends by buying Gillette, if the ad campaign is successful at appealing to women. While I can't think of a more emasculating approach to attracting male customers than that, it is at least possible that that is the direction society is heading in, and Gillette is making an all-in bet on male emasculation. They may also have data on 'who does the shopping'. Perhaps they believe women buy groceries more than men, and might decide to 'switch' their significant other's razor blades to Gillette. 'Honey, how come you bought Gillette. I use Schick?'. 'They were, ahm, out of stock hun - sorry'.

There are therefore plausible arguments for why it might have made sense - particularly as the sector becomes more price competitive and Gillette's brand rents are being eroded. Maybe they felt that if they could successfully appeal to people's social justice sensibilities, they could give people a reason to pay $30 for blades that should sell for $5-10.

Nevertheless, even granting the above, it is a huge gamble, as this could spectacularly backfire (I guess they don't call themselves Proctor & Gamble for nothing). Usually large companies with incumbent positions are risk averse - why risk disrupting the gravy train? But here, I would go as far as saying Gillette is wagering more than a century of hard-won brand equity with this ad campaign. Given that this is so contrary to typical big-company behaviour, I believe it is much more likely that Gillette, like many liberal-elite circles, has simply had its judgement distorted by its own political biases, and has misread both reality (i.e. one in five people are not actually raped on campus like the advocates argue) and popular sentiment.

We live in a world with loud, squawking social justice advocates, who are not afraid to 'call out' perspectives they don't like, scream racism and sexism left right and centre, and threaten companies with social media boycott campaigns. This has companies running scared. Furthermore, we also live in a world where both academia and the mainstream media (and now silicon valley) have all been captured by the left wing liberal elite. There is therefore a tendency for many elite liberals to live in echo-chambers, and convince themselves that their perspectives are much more widely held than they really are.

This is particularly the case because social media has lead to an epidemic of virtue signalling. People express opinions online that make them look good, rather than necessarily what they privately believe, while there are large 'silent majorities' that hold opinions but don't have the willingness/ability to publicly express them because they are politically incorrect. Liberals' intuitions can therefore sometimes be way off the mark - particularly because they have a tendency to base their world views on idealism rather than hard facts, and are not very good at incorporating inconvenient truths into their world view.

If there is one thing Donald Trump's election should have taught people (as well as Brexit, and the rise of 'alt right' parties in Europe) - events that shocked the liberal-elite - it is that there are large portions of the population that don't share the same beliefs, values and priorities as the coastal elites do. Despite near uniform condemnation and scorn in the mainstream media, half of the US population voted for Trump. In other worlds, there are large numbers of people that don't buy into liberalism run amok, despite the monoculture that exists in liberal circles. Companies need to realise this, or they risk doing very significant damage to their business, by mistaking vocal activism for mainstream opinion.

Incidentally, this is an example of why on this blog I occasionally do delve into 'political' topics, because the world of business, economies and markets do not exist in a vacuum, but in an evolving socio-political-cultural theatre. Companies can do real damage to themselves (and create opportunities for others) when their political biases misalign with reality. Gillette's political biases are just such an example here. Furthermore, if P&G's goal was to ward off new entrants like Dollar Shave Club, there is a good chance it will have the reverse effect, because they have just given rise to a major business opportunity for somebody (if I had the time and resources, I might consider doing it myself, but I don't): Start a unabashedly pro-masculine razor-blade brand right now, market it through social media (including doing an obvious parody of Gillette, which would no doubt go viral), and distribute your product online.* If well executed, one ought to be able to do what Dollar Shave Club has done, but likely with much more rapid success. There is a large market out there now of disaffected Gillette customers that are looking to switch to a brand that is more aligned with their values and unashamedly pro-masculine. It is a huge opportunity. The window is open now, but won't be for long.

This is particularly the case because most of the other razor brands on the market are also run by hard-core liberals that have featured memes of toxic masculinity in their past social media communications as well - simply not as fragrantly. Interestingly, they all swiftly pulled this stuff off their social media feeds in the wake of the Gillette fallout, perhaps sensing a major opportunity to gain share at Gillette's expense. However, given their liberal DNA, they will probably find it hard to rebrand in an unabashedly pro-masculine way - they will simply cool it on the anti-masculinity.

Time will tell whether the campaign was a success or not (or, more likely, how big a failure), and the proof will ultimately be in the market share stats. There are already negative omens though - not just in the online fallout, but in the very fact competing razor companies pulled their toxic masculinity literature. I have also started a small poll on Twitter, and of the 36 votes cast so far, 28% say they are Gillette customers and will stay; 19% say they are Gillette customers and will dump the brand; 53% say they are not Gillette customers and will remain so (Gillette has about a 50% market share, so this is about right), and notably, 0% say they were not Gillette customers and will switch to Gillette.

The effectiveness of this ad campaign - at least insofar as it influences male behaviour (as noted, females might do the buying in some cases and that might act as a partial offset, although female attitudes towards the ad haven't been uniformally positive either), can be measured by the number of non-Gillette customers that will switch to Gillette, minus the number of Gillette customers that plan to leave the brand. On this (admittedly very small and likely unrepresentative) sample, the campaign appears to have been a spectacular failure, with this metric being a negative net 19%, with not a single person saying they will switch to Gillette. Furthermore, it implies that Gillette could lose as much as 20% percentage points of market share (a 40% decline in sales) - an outcome that would be truly catastrophic.

The fallout could also conceivably affect some of P&G's other brands as well (although likely much less so - particularly because the gender representation of buyers will be more balanced, and because many people associate products with individual brands rather than their ultimate corporate owner). If these numbers are even remotely representative (and again, I caution they probably are not), then this ad campaign has been an epic fail, and may even be a contender for the worst marketing campaign of all time. Only people afflicted with severe political biases could be capable of such monumental stupidity.

It will be interesting to watch the market share stats play out in coming months. If the fallout is as bad as it could be, heads should roll at P&G.


*For instance, against a montage of clips demonstrating positive masculinity, including firefighters rescuing people from burning buildings; men working in tough jobs such as building skyscrapers and in factories; and husbands caring for and protecting their kids and loved ones, coupled with emotive music, a voiceover could say something like. "In recent times (flashing to a quick clip of the Gillette ads on a screen), some people have tried to demean masculinity, and try to make men feel ashamed for being men. But we believe in men and masculinity. We believe every day, millions of ordinary men work hard, provide for their families, protect love ones, and work to build a better future. They risk their lives to save and protect others, care for their kids, and help build businesses and create new technologies that generate prosperity for all. We believe it is ok to compete, ok to play, and ok to be ambitious, and are proud that these traits of masculinity have helped to build the modern world. We celebrate all the positive contributions masculinity makes to society. XXXX blade, made proudly by men for men. We believe in men".

You'd probably get 5-10% market share immediately, provided you had sufficient online distribution in place.

Postscript: Some light satire:

Mr Gillette: "Mr Average Customer, I need you to sit down for a second. We need to have a chat. Look mate, you really need to realise it's not ok to go around raping women. It's not cool. Seriously dude, listen to me. You absolutely have to stop raping women. This sort of behaviour is completely unacceptable. It's not ok for you to believe that just because you're a man, it's ok to just go around sexually assaulting women."

Mr Average Customer: "But I don't rape women, never have, never would, and frankly I'm a bit surprised and offended that you seem to think would".

Mr Gillette: "If you're offended, it's because you are part of the problem that normalises rape culture and disrespects women. I've had this chat with several people now, and for some reason many don't seem to like it. To my mind, it's proof that our culture normalises rape and thinks it's ok. This is exactly why we need to have this chat. It's simply no longer acceptable for you to define your masculinity as being one that says rape is ok."

Mr Average Customer: "But I'm not normalising rape. I think it's abhorrent. I just don't like you presuming I'm a rapist, just because I'm a man and a small minority of other men rape women (and sometimes men and boys as well). My vision of masculinity has never normalised rape - in fact, my vision of masculinity is one that stands up for and protects women in distress. A real man would risk his life to save a women being raped".

Mr Gillette: "You still don't seem to get the point and frankly I'm disappointed you don't share our our values and beliefs that rape is not ok. Anyway, care to buy some of our overpriced razers?".