Will Dettol's 'back-to-work' ad campaign damage its brand?

Clockwise from top left: Tate, Lang, Young, Goldstone, Arrow, Domenet
Clockwise from top left: Tate, Lang, Young, Goldstone, Arrow, Domenet

Disinfectant brand's latest ad sparked caustic reaction, but will it boost or blight the brand?

Think of all the supposedly great things about being in your actual at-work office… is "putting on a tie" one of them? No, we didn’t think so. Whereas some may be eager to return to "plastic plants" and "the boss’s jokes", others are less keen and have taken issue with the latest Dettol ad.

The out-of-home work, created by McCann and seen on Tube platforms across London, has whipped up a Twitter storm, with critics deriding it for missing the mood of the moment. Some have lambasted it for appearing too similar to a government return-to-work campaign, a problem exacerbated by photos of the ads circulating on Twitter with Dettol's branding cropped out.

The ad also has been slammed as a poor imitation of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting "choose life" intro. Indeed, the novelist himself weighed into the Twitter furore with a characteristically acerbic comment, while his second tweet simply said: "Choose death".

[not all bosses are like this - ed.]

But with high-profile commentators such as Welsh and David Baddiel adding to the Twitter stream, has the campaign criticism been good for Dettol, providing cut-through in the crowded cleaning product market? Or could it work against the brand, making it appear a heartless government stooge, hurrying people back to work whatever the cost?

Dettol’s interest in getting back to normal certainly extends further: in the past week the brand announced a partnership with TfL, under which more than 800 dispensers across 270 Tube stations will be installed, dispensing Dettol hand sanitiser and carrying the core campaign message: "Help protect the little things we love".

So is the office really one of those things? Lockdown raised serious questions about all those grey office blocks, with six months away from "normal" leading many to question how well it worked in the first place. Dettol’s unmitigated enthusiasm for getting workers back to the office during a pandemic may not wash well, but will the backlash leave a stain that has us reaching for rival brands?

Sara Tate

Chief exective, TBWA\London

The old adage tells us "nothing kills a bad product like good advertising". But I don’t think "bad advertising kills a good product". Dettol is a well-respected brand, with more than 90 years of excellent reputation. Its product is so in demand that it is regularly out of stock in my local Tesco. It is also undergoing an unlikely moment in the sun, when disinfecting is the new everything. We constantly stress to clients how important all these elements are in driving brand perceptions in today’s world. This campaign may be a misstep, but don’t think it will do any substantial damage to Dettol’s chance of being "most lusted for brand" in 2020.

Paul Domenet

Communications creative director, Free The Birds

Oh dear. Someone didn’t read the room. It’s an act of supreme arrogance only a corporate juggernaut like Reckitt Benckiser is capable of to think it can tune in to the incredibly complex sensitivities swirling around the current environment. Added to their inability to resist the temptation to piggy-back a pandemic. If it wasn’t bad enough to completely misjudge the mood (nine out of 10 people would prefer to carry on working at home, according to Radio 4 this week), the writer adds a sanctimonious flourish so beloved of Covid-era copywriting: "The little things we do protect the little things we love." Protecting the big things we love, like family and loved ones, are causing many people to agonise over returning to work. And a dab of Dettol is not going to clean that up.

Alan Young

Chief creative officer, St. Luke's

This isn’t the only ad in the series. The campaign is about protecting the little things we love. Dettol has misjudged the mood of the commuting public who don’t seem to share the brand’s enthusiasm for taking public transport during a deadly pandemic. But it doesn’t really matter. None of us buys Dettol because we want the brand to give us relatable insights about Tube travel. We buy it because we want the product to kill bugs. Given the current lack of eyeballs on Tube stations, the social shares of the campaign and responses would have really boosted the numbers. All the extra exposure, no matter how negative it seems, will likely work in Dettol’s favour.

Mel Arrow

Head of strategy, BMB

It’s ironic, really, that an ad for a cleaning product has managed to make us all feel so dirty. We can wash, but we will never be able to rid ourselves of the mental stains Dettol has left behind. We’ve all read reports that show how bad publicity can lead to short-term sales spikes (trips to Kazakhstan after Borat, for instance), but as for brand reputation, that’s another thing entirely. For a brand trying to build a platform around small, human, insightful moments – aka "the little things we love" – missing the mark so dramatically is a big brand issue. Or to put it in a way that Dettol might understand: they’re the guy who said that thing down the pub and no matter how many tins of Cadbury’s Heroes he brings in between now and Christmas, everyone will still, secretly, refer to him as Weird Kevin.

Harry Lang

Managing director, Brand Architects

The short answer is no, of course not. As a 90-year-old brand that just disinfects stuff, Dettol has previous form when it comes to making crud disappear and the same will be true here. The copy is poor, for sure, but most of the noise is objecting to anyone – ever – trying to shoehorn the phrase "proper bants" into something designed to appeal to those over the age of 10. Differentiating a disinfectant is difficult – and making it memorable impossible – so invoking the ire (and reach) of enfant terrible Irvine Welsh is pretty impressive work. That said, this campaign will be one of the 99% of germs Dettol won’t miss.

Jon Goldstone

Global managing partner, The Brandgym

No, I don’t think it will damage the brand. While I find the copy irritating, I think that most people will take away two things: that it’s for the Dettol brand and that Dettol has an association with disinfection. The green colour and the "sword" logo are such strong and established distinctive brand assets that almost any communication will raise top-of-mind awareness. This is essential at a time when the propensity to buy cleaning products is so high and when the competitive set is so active. The creative idea isn’t too bad. “The little things we do help protect the little things we love” captures a mood of collective social responsibility that is topical and relevant. It’s the execution that lets it down. Any long-copy communication requires beautifully crafted copy. And this isn’t beautifully crafted copy. It’s so bad that I started trying to make excuses for it. Was it made for another market and translated into English? Or did they mistakenly hire the copywriter from the Home Office communication team? It’s not a disaster, but it could have been much better.

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