I&C Disruptor: How Unilever and 72andSunny reinvented Axe for the enlightened male

A diverse global team breathed new life into a tired brand by challenging the notions of masculinity it once helped promote.

When Axe’s "Find Your Magic" debuted in January 2016, it represented a dramatic new direction for the brand. After years of telling young dudes that a single whiff of the body spray reduced women to mindless, sex-obsessed beasts (with notable exceptions), parent-company Unilever presented an enlightened, progressive view of masculinity that resonated with a new generation of men. Forget conquest, the brand said; focus on being you.

On Feb. 28, Axe and 72andSunny Amsterdam will be among the 16 creative teams honored by Campaign US as I&C Disruptors. Here, we spoke to Rik Strubel, Global VP for Axe at Unilever, and Stephanie Feeney, Director of Strategy for 72andSunny Amsterdam, about the research the fueled "Find Your Magic," the creative decisions that brought it to life and what it did for the brand.   

What was the thinking that led to "Find Your Magic"? After so many years of the same formula, why change it now?
Rik Strubel: Axe has been a tremendously successful brand for over three decades. We looked at the more recent years and saw that the growth rate was going down. We were wondering, what are we missing?

For a bit more than a year, we investigated the mindset of young guys today. We went into 10 markets, 3,500 guys, and we learned that there was something that has changed quite dramatically: "Getting the girl" used to be very much about conquest. Today the best strategy is much more equal than it was. Therefore, if you're the brand that stands for that moment of conquest, that's not really relevant anymore.

Guys were also telling us they had inherited a lot of pressures from previous generations. A man should be like this or a man should do this and not do that. Bringing the bread home, be a defender, be masculine, whatever that means. At the same time, they felt they needed to be much more understanding. They need to be witty, kind, empathetic. They were a bit confused.

Then, when we asked the girls what makes a man attractive, it wasn't the things guys would think. It wasn't the amount of money they had, the car they drove, the six-pack they had. It was much more about a certain sense of confidence. A guy who was himself, not trying to be somebody else. This brand has always been about attraction, building his confidence to be more himself. We needed to do something about this Axe effect and the brand positioning as it stood at the time.

How did you decide how far to push the redefinition of masculinity? Were there other versions of the ad that went further?
Stephanie Feeney: We really started with asking, "What are the stereotypes that are limiting guys, and how can we exploit them?" What are the alternative masculinities we can show that will feel liberating? When you look at sensitivity, for example, that's something that has historically been a feminine value. How can we show men being more sensitive and open? The professions that men are often shown in can be quite stereotypical. How can we use the work that we do to expand the range of jobs that we show guys doing? The stuff like the guy in the heels or physically different guys—skinnier, bigger, with longer hair, which in some markets is still really seen as feminine—that exploration was really important to us.

The second thing was the global nature of the brand. We do have to operate in really different markets where that journey toward a more progressive or expansive masculinity is at different stages. We needed something that would feel progressive wherever it aired, without feeling offensive or testing the boundaries of the law in some countries, or in other countries feeling not progressive at all.

I’m going to ask a potentially uncomfortable question: How diverse was the team that put this together?
It's not an uncomfortable question for either of us.

Strubel: I have more women than men on my team. Out of 30 people, I probably have 17 nationalities. Different colors, different shapes and different everything. This is what makes us a global team. It's really very easy for us to assess whether something steps on a cultural toe or whether something would not work just by asking the folks in our own teams.

Feeney: The creative director on Axe is a woman, which I think surprises people. I think we have 10 nationalities here—not that many more people than nationalities, races and sexual orientations, as well. It's a founding principle of our company. We're not a diverse bunch of people because we think it's a moral obligation, we think it makes the work better. I 100 percent think you would not have gotten the work that we did with the Unilever team if you hadn't had such a diverse bunch of people gathered around the challenge.

If you’ve got people from Barbados, Argentina, Brazil, Sweden, France, the UK trying to put together a portrait of modern masculinity, you're already ahead of the game, because you've got so many different points of view and experiences. I think we need more of that in the industry. Quotas or numbers aside, it just shows in the work.

Did you experience much backlash, and, if so, how did you manage it?
We definitely had some haters, some backlash, and we expected that. Overwhelmingly, we saw that guys were ready for it. Girls were more than ready for it. I think we got the balance right in the end.

Strubel: There were more than 75 million views, overall. The vast majority of people actually watched the video almost until the end, up to 51 seconds, which is a record high with Unilever for an online video. The most interesting part was that 96 percent of the people in the US who commented gave positive feedback. We were not prepared for that, to be honest.

For the feedback that was negative, it was fascinating to see how it regulated itself. To a large extent, there were people stepping in and saying, "Hold on, dude. You got it completely wrong." Therefore, there was not really the requirement for us to step in. In some cases, we commented from the Axe handle, basically saying, "Just try to open up a little bit." We tried to do it in a tone that was witty and light-hearted. We then gave the team from 72 the power of the pen to make sure that we get the tone right, appearing as a peer rather than as the big brand that we are.

Tell me about the results. Sales for the brand went up during the year. Can you be specific of the terms of what this did for the brand?
Strubel: Unilever doesn’t talk about specific numbers, but overall, it had very positive impact on the brand itself. While we were repositioning the brand, we also expanded it into moving toward male grooming. Those products helped us to bring that growth back to Axe that we were hoping for.

At the same time, in a very short amount of time, we had a fundamental impact on brand equity. We had basically stagnant brand equity for a long time. Even in markets like Argentina, France, UK, where the brand has been around for a very long time, we saw really fundamental positive shift in the key attributes and brand equity, overall. Combined with all those positive comments that we got from the guys, it gave us the confirmation and the confidence that we're probably on a very good pathway. We should continue along the lines of "Find Your Magic."

So what's next? Is there another spot, another round?
Strubel: The first year was only the beginning. We really feel we have very strong support from men and women out there to do more of it, and we will. This year we are working with various different partners, including NGOs. We have an NGO here in the UK that we've been working with for two years now called CALM, Campaign Against Living Miserably, which is working to help people living with depression, rather. We have a NGO, which is called, Ditch the Label, which we're working very closely with to support anti-bullying.

While we are going to continue the journey of "Find Your Magic" on an advertising front, we want to make sure that we also do what we preach. We therefore help people where they need help, and support the respective NGOs to do so.

Come celebrate inclusive creativity at Campaign US' first-ever I&C summit, taking place at New York’s Dream Hotel on Feb. 28, 2017. This unique half-day event combines frank conversation about diversity and advertising with a recognition of creative teams breaking barriers. Learn more and buy tickets here.

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