Cream of the crop – Gillette brand profile

This feature first appeared in the July 2010 issue of Marketing magazine. 

On masculinity, celebrities and the power of brand loyalty, Matty Soccio faces facts and admits that he’s a slave of the shave – an area Gillette has dominated for over a century.

Wake up. Fumble with alarm. Schlep out of bed while everyone else still sleeps. Stumble to the bathroom in the dark. Stub toe on bookshelf. Turn on bathroom light and jump in the shower, feeling some life and consciousness beginning to wake in your body. Get out, dry off and look into the mirror.

This little performance occurs every day in every guy’s bathroom – the moment when you realise you have to shave. For many, it’s unavoidable. The hair on your face will grow to a point where a) your parents will complain about it, b) your girlfriend/wife/boyfriend will complain about your sandpaper face, or c) it will become long enough for small children or animals to swing from it, making you wonder why you’ve been cursed with such an affliction.

Then again, you could just shave – a minor ritual that when completed instils a degree of pride in your appearance. It’s a wonder that such a mundane daily task of such insignificant importance could be the driver behind one of the most successful superbrands in the world.

For a brand to feature the prefix ‘super’, it needs to display a few set characteristics: power, awareness, wealth and influence. Over the years we’ve covered a lot of superbrands at Marketing, with varying degrees of response from our readers. Shell, IKEA, Disney, Google etc have all appealed because their characteristics matched our definition of which brands deserve this somewhat overused prefix.

Why this vague introduction? Because Gillette is the first brand that I’ve come across where, during the course of my research, I’ve had a brand researcher excitedly babble about how ‘super’ it is. His excitement (which will be revisited later in this feature) was over a collection of numbers suggesting that (according to his scale) Gillette was highest point-scoring brand he’d ever seen.

Why? Because, if its marketing campaigns are to be believed, at various times in its existence Gillette has been responsible for men getting their jobs, getting the girl, having the life and, most importantly, being men.

From his office in Singapore, Emre Olcer, marketing director, Gillette Male Grooming (AAIKJ), indicates that the male hygiene sector, or ‘male grooming’ as it’s referred to within the industry, has evolved in recent years, allowing men to not feel uncomfortable when approaching the subject.

“There is a phenomenon of what I call ‘genderisation’, whereby on the one hand, men today have a greater variety of specialised grooming products available to them and, on the other hand, men who were using female grooming products are switching to male grooming ones.

“In this latter phenomenon, we all see that there have been many male grooming products entering the market in the past one to two years, thus ensuring that there is now a greater variety of grooming products available to feed the changing needs and increasing demands of the modern 21st century man,” adds Olcer.

 

Marketing the masculine

I don’t remember learning to shave or when I started even having to entertain the thought. But once I realised the attention that well-sculpted facial art could bring, it was like a revelation. I have since dabbled in everything: the goatee, the chin strap (also known as the ‘Abe Lincoln’), the hobo growth – you name it, I’ve worn it. These days I keep a ‘salt and pepper’, neat, closely trimmed beard, bereft of the experimentation of my early days (though I am known to let loose come the Movember period, of which more later).

The stereotype of the ‘girly man’, the stigma attached to the legend of Narcissus (a man so enamoured with himself that he fell in love with his own reflection, culminating in his death by drowning) can still rear its ugly head when men are accused of excessive ‘manscaping’. The challenge for marketers such as Olcer has been to break down these misconceptions that prevent men from taking notice of their appearance and, more importantly, their hygiene.

“I used to work for a multinational company that specialises in female beauty before I moved to Gillette. Having managed only female beauty brands previously, I was interested to find out more about male consumers – then Gillette came into the picture. It is a multinational company with a global brand name that I think has the most innovative range of male grooming products out there. These factors are what attracted me to move on from managing female beauty brands to Gillette,” Olcer explains.

“Marketing to men is very different from marketing to women. The manner with which a male consumer searches for a product, shops for it and makes a decision to purchase it is very different from that of a female consumer.”

But how do you make such a regular daily function seem not only attractive and cool, but a part of weekly shopping purchases? Gillette has, over time, presented itself as a daily ‘need’, rather than being about self-indulgence. It tells its consumers that Gillette will get you the job, not just because it wants to infiltrate your daily lives, but because it wants to state the obvious – if you shave to look good, you will feel good.

Marketing masculinity in this way is what Gillette does best, and has done for the better part of 115 years. By providing men with the Gillette Grooming Guide, which gives consumers shaving directions (starting with how to perform the first shave, going right through to perceivably more difficult endeavours such as how to shave your groin) and linking to sports, the whole lifestyle of the consumer is considered when planning new products and the supporting campaigns.

“I think our commitment to product innovation and research and development is another hallmark of the Gillette heritage that remains with us today,” says Mike Abbott, marketing director of Gillette for its parent company, Proctor & Gamble. “Our goal is to deliver the ideal shave – one characterised by great closeness, combined with optimal comfort and no skin irritation. That has driven us since day one.

“In 1958 this meant producing the first adjustable razor. This allowed for an adjustment of the blade to increase the closeness of the shave. In 1971 this meant working with our R&D team to develop the world’s first two-bladed razor, the Trac II, which cut the number of strokes required and reduced skin irritation. Our R&D team studied the shaving habits of more than 10,000 men to develop Gillette’s Fusion, the world’s first five-bladed razor.”

The benchmark for the brand’s existence has been the importance placed on a solid R&D-based strategy… but it’s also its Achilles heel when it comes to the brand’s image.

Like any superbrand, Gillette isn’t immune. But rather than criticism, Gillette has been the butt of jokes related to its multiple-blade technology. Programs like The Late Show and Saturday Night Live in the US have poked fun about the gradual adding of blades to the brand’s products. Satirical magazine The Onion even printed a mock ad after Wilkinson/Schick introduced its Quattro razor in 2004 entitled ‘F**k Everything, We’re Doing Five Blades’ (which, incidentally, the brand actually did with the aforementioned Fusion three years later). These evolutions in the brand’s products have been the centre of its successful branding – but, in the end, do consumers really need five razors to shave? Absolutely, says Abbott.

“A misconception some people have is around whether five blades actually make a difference. Well, they do. The benefits of multi-blade razors were discovered in the late 1960s.

“When cutting a hair using a multi-blade razor, the hair undergoes a process called ‘hysteresis’, in which the first blade extends the hair out of the hair follicle and allows the subsequent blade to cut further down the hair shaft before the hair has fully retracted back into the hair follicle. This provides a closer, longer-lasting shave. As more blades are added to the razor, the probability of this process is increased,” asserts Abbott.

Other criticisms range from the profit margin gained by the company versus its products’ actual manufacturing costs, through to accusations of tracking consumers through its use of tiny cameras via RFID technology in its packaging (yes, seriously).

Something that Gillette’s marketing department does very well when facing such criticism is refer back to the science to showcase a product’s ability and popularity, even if the explanation sounds like a defence. But there’s a good reason for this – Gillette has been fighting off rivals and critics for the best part of a century, meaning it’s very good at taking on the competition.

 

Man behind the brand

King C Gillette wasn’t your average inventor. He spent much of the 1880s as a travelling businessman, attempting to pull together a living for a family whose interests had been wiped in out the 1871 ‘Great Chicago Fire’. During this period of renewal and industrialisation in the US, the emphasis on having disposable products for consumers was coming to a head, a concept not lost on the enterprising Gillette. In essence, he was able to identify a need for a product in the market that was easy to access and cheap enough to buy – in this case, a disposable razor.

Despite the fact that the idea of the disposable safety razor had been in development for some years, Gillette was able to commercialise and progress it further.

In 1903, after establishing the Gillette Safety Razor Company, Gillette sold just 51 razors and 168 blades. Thanks to low prices, good manufacturing and smart marketing, the next year that number rose to 90,884 razors and 123,648 blades.

How did he achieve these numbers you ask? Gillette was a clever guy – he realised the benefits of giving away his product or selling it at an extremely low price to introduce consumers to its ease and usefulness. He knew that once they had a razor they would continue to purchase replacement disposable blades for years, even decades – and thus ‘freebie marketing’ was born.

When I query Abbott on this, he is coy in his response (“Procter & Gamble does not share detailed information about its marketing strategies” was his response), but it doesn’t subtract from the success that has been documented about this brand of marketing.

For King Gillette, it gave birth to the concept that investing money in the company’s R&D would mean the brand would grow with its consumers. It would make sure that it didn’t become stale and always had something new to offer – a concept that has worked for the company all over the world.

Its early advertising reflects this – a man saying he didn’t get a job because of his shabby appearance, a little boy being taught by his father to shave and so on, the full ‘cause and effect’ style of advertising.

“When King C Gillette introduced his revolutionary Safety Razor in 1903, he founded a company on the time-honoured credo, ‘There is a better way to shave and we will find it’,” says Olcer, when quizzed about the brand’s heritage.

According to Olcer, the brand’s success globally is inextricably linked to the ideals its founder preached in the early part of the 20th century.

“Gillette has remained true to this spirit for the past century and continues to deliver on that promise with ground-breaking razors featuring innovative technologies from the Sensor to the Mach3, Mach3 Turbo and, of course, our latest and best razor ever, the Fusion – currently the bestselling razor in the world. Each and every one of these razor innovations was inspired by ever-changing and evolving consumer needs. The continual emphasis on consumer needs driven innovation to keep on finding a better way to shave is probably the reason why Gillette has been the leading force in male grooming for more than a hundred years.”

A big test for the company came when it succumbed to the progress that is globalisation, and was bought by Proctor & Gamble (P&G) in 2005. The question was asked: could it continue its dominance if it answered to the board of a new owner?

 

How big? 

On a busy Friday morning, I have what is arguably the fastest coffee meeting in history, lasting no more than seven minutes. The meeting is with David Evans, head of BrandAsset Consulting, who meets me to hand over some stats about how Gillette has travelled in past five years.

“In a word, this is a true ‘superbrand’. I haven’t seen statistics like this with any other brand post the GFC,” gushes Evans.

As I ponder if Evans has secretly been paid off by the brand to deliver this glowing assessment, he turns his laptop toward me and shows me why.

According to Evans, not only has the company maintained its leader position in an otherwise eroding category, it has actually gained strength and, shock horror, grown during the GFC.

Following its purchase by P&G, the company outperformed its closest (and I use that term loosely) competitors, Bic and Wilkinson (which owns Schick Razors) by around 23 percent and 61 percent respectively. The fact that Wilkinson is best known by the 35-plus age group, and very little below that, goes to show that Gillette, despite letting its guard down in the late 1980s, has dominated to the point that, generally, people under 35 have barely heard of the competition.

In fact, after going through the multiple graphs and tables, it would seem that Evans’ stats show that Gillette leads in every area of its category. And by a lot.

These statistics don’t surprise Olcer. He points out that Gillette is the only male grooming brand ranked in the top 30 of the BrandZ ‘Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands’ list.

“With over 600 million men globally trusting their faces to Gillette every day, it is clear that we know and understand men! We know what men want: a close and comfortable shave. We are always focused on finding a better way for men to shave. It is this spirit in innovation that led the founder to develop the world’s first safety razor slightly more than a century ago. This same pioneering spirit of innovation continues to be the cornerstone of every Gillette success that we have seen over the years – from the invention of the first twin-blade razor and then the three-bladed Mach3, followed by various breakthrough shaving systems in the past decade, such as the enhanced Mach3 Turbo blades, the M3 Power and the world’s first five-bladed Fusion.”

Campaign strategy and marketing techniques is, as mentioned earlier, a sore point with Abbott and Olcer. Gillette has never rested on its laurels – being at the top for so long doesn’t mean you’ll stay there, even if it means being reserved in revealing marketing techniques.

What Abbott does share is that the brand has made sure that its accessibility to consumers matches its investment in R&D.

“In January, we introduced a new addition to the successful Fusion range – Gillette Fusion Gamer. Available in manual and power, the Gillette Fusion Gamer is designed to provide total comfort, even against the grain. Both shaving systems feature five blades, with each blade spaced 30 percent closer together than Mach 3 blades, providing Gillette’s most comfortable shave ever. The razor has been designed with style in mind and has a cool, fresh look that exudes a high-tech feel. The colours and materials used have been inspired by the latest white trend used in many high-tech gadgets such as iPods and Macs. Again, our local ‘Champion’ Michael Clarke featured in this TVC and all consumer touch points.

“The reaction from consumers to both of these campaigns has been extremely positive, with the Fusion brand now bigger than our nearest competitor’s total male shaving business in only three to four years.”

When visiting the company’s online properties, it’s clear that every scenario has been covered – extending to online tutorials on head shaving, dealing with oil/acne/tight/sensitive skin, and how to shave a coarse beard. But, despite being owned by a big pharmaceutical megalith, Gillette’s marketers can have some fun.

The brand released a video on YouTube entitled ‘How to shave your groin’, which has been viewed by over 2.3 million potential consumers.

“Online is an important touch point for us,” explains Abbott. “As we all know media is becoming more fragmented and no longer are consumers just watching free-to-air TV. Having an online presence is important to us to ensure we are connecting with our consumers in the right environments at the right times. This is especially true of our younger consumers. Engaging with consumers via social media is also an important tool for us. We look at social media in terms of the opportunities that exist both above the line and below the line.”

An initiative on which Gillette may have missed the boat is the incredibly popular Movember, a charity set up to encourage awareness of men’s issues and health, and which is supported by Gillette’s rival Schick (owned by Wilkinson Sword). But neither Olcer nor Abbott are interested in commenting on what competitors are doing – their interest, again, is in their direct consumers.

“In the past 10 years, while remaining true to our brand heritage, we have made a conscious effort to ensure the brand still remains relevant to our current users, as well as new consumers coming into the marketplace for the first time. This means subtle changes, from the way we communicate to the mediums we use,” explains Abbott.

 

Brand by celebrity

There’s almost nothing that screams Gillette more than its legendary support of sporting events and, therefore, sportsmen. The celebrity role call is outstanding – the ‘Gillette Champions’ program boasts the likes of Roger Federer, Thierry Henry, Shoaib Malik, Derek Jeter, Kenan Sofuoglu, Ji-Sung Park and Rahul Dravid, all suited to their specific markets.

In Australia, budding Australian cricket captain Michael Clarke is the face of the brand. A recent promotion attracted consumers by promising those who entered a branded competition a chance of a training session with the cricketer.

“Gillette is one of the earliest brands, if not the very first, to venture into the area of sports marketing. Gillette had been involved with top-tier athletes and sports back in the first few decades of its existence. Over the years, Gillette’s participation in sports marketing grew from its ventures in North America to involvement in global sporting activities and events. Most recently, we launched the global Gillette Champions program, which continued the pioneering element of sports marketing in the brand’s heritage from its early days close to a century back,” explains Olcer.

But, as all marketers are aware, the celebrity track is one strewn with the dead of its PR disasters. For Gillette, choosing the right sporting ambassador isn’t as easy as it may seem, exemplified by its recent experience with golfer Tiger Woods.

The decision to rely so heavily on celebrity endorsement is wrought with danger – it’s akin to high stakes gambling where anything that ambassador does wrong could potentially damage the brand, but the projective pay-off is so big that it’s hard to resist. M&C Saatchi Cape Town chief executive partner Mike Abel pleaded in an article for Marketing (February 2010), for brands to ask themselves more questions than simply slap a celebrity face on their products.

“We’re in a world where content is about consumer engagement, but ‘fun’ doesn’t have to mean ‘tacky’ and ‘memorable’ doesn’t have to mean ‘in your face’… brands must play a role in getting us to notice and understand what’s meaningful about a product or service offering.”

But Abbott insists that a lot of what Gillette does today is based on what has worked for it on a historical basis.

“For example, Gillette has been associated with top athletes and sport since the early 1900s, when the company had the vision to see the value in connecting the brand with top-tier sports and athletes. We believe this was one of the key strategic elements that helped the company grow into a world leader in the male grooming category – and that is why we continue that tradition today,” explains Abbott.

“Appointing a celebrity as a brand ambassador isn’t a short-term strategy and it isn’t right for every brand. It has to be the right fit. It also has to be supported with a long-term strategy that works across a range of touch points to ensure relevancy and currency.

“Many of our campaigns are developed on a global basis; however, we do ensure we remain relevant to Australian consumers with the most recent example being Michael Clarke appointed as Gillette’s local ‘Champion’ building off our Global Champions program.”

To Olcer, celebrity endorsement is just one of the elements in a marketing campaign, no different to the consideration given to other facets such as TVCs or direct mail.

“Celebrities are enablers in the process – they personify what the brand stands for to the consumers. But, this is not the only important factor in the consumer’s relationship with the brand. Equally important is the consumer’s experience of the brand promise and product benefit – it is absolutely necessary for the brand that the product delivers on its promise without fail.

“Gillette has marketed its wares to men for over a century pretty successfully, thanks in part to the mix of factors like our deeply rooted understanding of men, sports celebrity endorsements and innovative products that deliver superior performance.”

In the end the success of Gillette’s strategy can be seen in the increasing revenue it consistently brings in – as the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Olcer points to his personal favourite campaign, Gillette’s iconic slogan ‘The Best a Man Can Get’, as proof of this, though he insists that those with the cut-through to elicit consumer response, such as the Mach3 campaign with jet fighters and the Gillette Fusion razor launch TVC, are equally worth their weight.

“These are memorable campaigns that still remain on top of consumers’ minds even many years after their debuts!”

 

How the mighty hath grown

After 100 years, Gillette still relies on the same sales principles that King Gillette believed would create brand loyalty. This becomes clear when I ask Abbott what drew him to work for the brand.

“My father was a huge Gillette advocate and taught me to shave with Gillette Sensor 25 years ago and I have always loved performance, design and technology. The ‘Best a Man Can Get’ motto just resonated with me and when combined with the sports association it was a perfect fit – I’ve never looked back.”

Abbott indicates that part of the reason the Gillette brand has been so enduring is because it stands by its product – everything else is secondary.

“Our products, and in particular our systems’ blades and razors, are the result of years of extensive research. At Gillette, the entire innovation process is based on a deep understanding of men. We continually study men’s shaving needs, their shaving habits and their skin in great detail.”

Olcer points to Gillette’s ethos of standing for innovation, first and foremost. Its ‘new-to-the-world’ blades and razor technologies are the cornerstone of the company’s success over the past century.

“Each of these breakthrough razor technologies provides for superior product performance to men out there and this image is reinforced, partly thanks to the brand’s long-term association with top-notch sportsmen and athletes. Our most recent sports marketing campaign, the Champions program, for instance saw the personification of the brand as one for champions,” Olcer explains.

“Gillette does not innovate for the sake of innovation: every product innovation is designed to meet the needs of men out there. We believe in leveraging breakthrough technologies in our products to make a difference in consumers’ lives. And the integration of Gillette into Procter & Gamble has enabled us to touch and improve more lives, more completely, in more parts of the world.”

One could argue that the brand lost an ideal opportunity to engage with a whole new crop of young shavers by not jumping on-board the Movember charity phenomenon as Schick did, but that would be losing sight of the work it has done in talking to consumers directly about their daily lives.

Initiatives such as the Grooming Guide and ‘First Timers’ are aimed at being more honest with consumers, rather than needing to attach a gimmick to making men feel manly.

“For this reason up to 80 men come and have their daily shave with us every morning at the Gillette Technical Centre in the UK. These consumer learnings are combined with scientific insights into how blades interact with skin and hair and are continually translated into new product ideas and working prototypes via advanced engineering and high-precision manufacturing processes,” asserts Abbott.

“New product developments are always assessed on whether they provide a better shave than razors currently on the market. Gillette will only ever launch a new razor when these improvements are significant, and truly meaningful to men.”

It’s a hard formula to knock: have a product that works, that at least half the population needs and provide it to them in a way that is easy for them. Make your presence known through their interests and engage with them when they need it. This simple relationship has been the cornerstone of Gillette’s current success. Its challenge? Keep reminding everyone why it has dominated its market for so long and how much it has done to liberate men from the stereotype of former hygiene expectations… or lack thereof.