Razors, pitchforks and the importance of energy over purpose

Hey, did anyone see that Gillette recently put out a new ad? *ducks to avoid incoming ordinance*.

Oh, you did. And you’ve heard a lot about it. Fine. But I think it’s worth commenting on due to the fact that many have claimed that Gillette’s hand was forced by the two major challengers in razors: Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club.

To get it out of the way, I didn’t think the ad was too bad… On one hand, as a newly-forged Angeleno, its lefty liberal sensibilities were like catnip to me. On the other, as a former advertising strategist, I particularly liked how the execution was clumsy and heavy handed. Which is bang on brand for the Gillette brand, as far as I can tell? Here’s to consistency of brand image.

Of course, the best reactions were on Twitter. They always are. Conniptions in 140 characters is 80% of the content on my feed, and the Gillette ad was blood in the water.

Amongst the positive hysteria and digital pitchforks, I enjoyed the calm analysis of Tom Morton, US Head of Strategy at RGA, who looked at readily available data to paint the situation that Gillette had found itself in. Beset on all sides by challengers who were stealing its share, and against a backdrop of changing attitudes to shaving, Gillette had to act.

The world’s biggest razor company was slipping into obsolescence, a brand that “my dad used to use”, from a different era. A strategy of suing the competitors, incremental innovation and/or hoping the challengers would just go away wasn’t good enough. Times have changed, but Gillette had not.

In Tom’s setup, I was reminded of the work of BAV Consulting, who describe the importance of brand energy - that brands with momentum perform better with consumers (and even more with shareholders) than the category average, especially against long established brands. Their work showed that even if we determine that the bigger brands have more stature and dependability, the magpie nature of humans means that we are drawn to the new and the unusual. Brands that sit outside of the status quo (*COUGH*, CHALLENGER BRANDS), and who seem to be pushing the category in a new direction, are frequently seen as more compelling than the market average.

In that vein, Gillette seems to have concluded that the best strategy was to build a new “purpose”-led direction for the brand. It was surely designed as a means of creating some momentum that Always, Dove and more recently AXE/LYNX have found while challenging gender stereotypes on behalf of their consumers. And boy, did it pick a biggy.

Perhaps Gillette realised that it couldn’t please all the people all the time. As we often say to our clients at eatbigfish, “a brand for everyone is a brand for no-one”. Gillette perhaps saw value in harnessing a changing demographic (which Tom highlights very nicely) and a changing outlook on the world that stems from the beliefs of an emerging generation, on whom Gillette’s future depends. And maybe, when you look at the data that we don’t have access to, there was a value in alienating a number of its existing users in order to better attract an emerging generation that might otherwise have completely walked past Gillette. Perhaps it was serious enough that it needed its own Symbol of Re-evaluation… to say that this is now a new Gillette, completely different from the one that you’ve known (and perhaps loved) to this day. Get used to it.

At least Gillette has the world's attention. It’s no longer being ignored.

However, the part of Tom’s analysis of the situation that I tripped on a little bit was the implication that a large part of Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s success is due to their positions as “purpose-led” brands, and the subsequent need of Gillette to find its own purpose in order to compete.

I question this because I’m not exactly sure I would describe Harry’s or DSC as “purpose” driven brands. Certainly not in the same mold as how Gillette has framed its own purpose, and what seems to be the commonly held understanding of purpose… i.e. to have a positive impact on the world or society.

In fact, when you look at Harry’s official response, they mention nothing about their objectives as a brand other than to right the wrongs of a category that has, in their eyes, always been user hostile. Nothing about society, or the environment, or anything else altruistic. DSC have been a bit more “purpose” driven with its latest campaign “Welcome to the Club” ( “we celebrate the unique ways people get ready, by weaving together the real, the authentic (and) the weird… in a purposeful march towards our best, most confident selves” they say), but its original play into the market was being the scrappy David to Gillette’s Goliath.

Looking at where these brands sit against our Challenger Narratives tool (BTW, update coming this year with the launch of Overthrow 2), I would place Harry’s as a People’s Champion and DSC as a Feisty Underdog. Both of these narratives are far more about sticking it to the man (on behalf of the consumer, or your own belief that smaller is better, respectively) than setting course for an idealised utopia… “Purpose” in the sense of a vision for a better world, doesn’t matter to these types of challengers so much.

So if it wasn’t purpose in the commonly held understanding of the word, what was it?

Maybe the issue is that our understanding of the term “purpose” is binary, in that you either have one or not. Perhaps we need a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be more than “just” a profit driven company (but let’s not kid ourselves… we all have CFO’s, shareholders and growth targets).

Maybe there is a spectrum… from Big Dumb Company to Enlightened Purpose/Belief Driven Cooperative, by way of brand trying to change the category for the better, just not the world.... at least, not yet.

Perhaps, instead of purpose, we should say that those brands have entered into the category with “intent”. An intent to change the category in their image. And with that comes the excitement, engagement, innovation and passion that BAV highlight as the key to brand energy. So perhaps the lesson here is not that you need a “make the world a better place” purpose to compete… but that you need to be changing something for the better (however your brand wants to define that) to get noticed.

I would say that what the three razor brands we’re discussing here today have in common are strategies that are aiming for “progress”.

At eatbigfish, our belief is that intelligent challenge is the fuel of progress… i.e. that it’s only through challenging the status quo (of the category, of society, of your own leadership of a category) that we are able to improve on what has come before.

You don’t create brand energy by maintaining the status quo, you do it by challenging. And often that means challenging yourself.