What my gran would say about Gillette

21 Jan 2019  |  Dominic Mills 
What my gran would say about Gillette

Gillette's adoption of purpose is the last resort of a desperate marketing department, writes Dominic Mills

Unlike Catherine Tate’s potty-mouthed Nan character, my grandmother had a more moderate and dated turn of phrase.

And, were she alive today, she would deploy one of her favourites to describe the Gillette ad.

For anyone who hasn’t seen it, here it is.

This is what she would say: ‘fine words butter no parsnips’. If pushed, she might go as far as ‘all fur coat and no knickers’. Both would describe the gap between Gillette’s claimed purpose and its actions. And it’s huge.

I’ll come back to the ad itself later. But let’s look at the parsnips.

Gillette says, as part of its plan to combat toxic masculinity, that it will donate $1m a year for the next three years to organisations — the Boy Scouts, most likely — that promote a better version of masculinity.

This is a truly derisory amount. To call it chump change is generous. Gillette’s annual worldwide sales are about $6.6bn.

My maths can be dodgy, but I think this works out at about 0.01515% of its sales (forgive me if I have erred one way or the other by a decimal place). Put another way, $1m is about 80 minutes worth of sales.

If I was Gillette I would hang my head in shame.

I’m willing to bet that the making of the ad itself, let alone any media expenditure, cost a lot more than that.

I’m surprised, in the firestorm that has broken around the ad, nobody has picked up on this. What would the people who applaud the ad — and there are some — think about this?

You can read consumer comment everywhere, but here is Mediatel readers’ take on it, Campaign readers' here, and of course Mark Ritson, who gives it the full two barrels here.

Me, I’m with the anti-brigade. I’m not a big fan of brand purpose, although I think it has its uses in some categories. But not here. It’s like Gillette has invaded men’s body space and started waving a large finger in our faces. ‘You should do this.’ You ought to do that’. ’Should’ and ‘ought’ are two of the most off-putting words in the English language, and almost guaranteed to provoke a reaction opposite to that which is intended. Fuck off, you think, don’t lecture me.

So what’s gone on here? My guess is there’s been a collective panic in the Gillette marketing department. Sales are in gentle decline, and it is on the wrong side of two trends.

One is what you might call ‘beardism’. Beards are everywhere, and while Gillette also owns Braun, which makes all manner of beard trimmers, the simple fact is that men with beards reduce demand for male grooming products.

The second is that challenger brands - mostly direct-to-consumer like Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s Grooming - have exposed the Gillette business model for what it is: an unsustainable rip off.

Sure, it can cut prices - as this shelf-wobbler in my local Boots on Saturday shows - but that is like sticking plaster on a gaping wound.

But rather than accept that its business model needs to evolve, this looks like a defensive strategy that tries to protect the un-protectable.

In moving to purpose, Gillette — which claims it is evolving its ‘the best a man can get’ anchor line — is actually giving up on its strongest asset, which is technological prowess.

They may have been stuffed with cliche, but the ads were underpinned by a very clear product message. You get a damn good shave — the best a man can get, in fact.

You used to get two blades, then three, four and five; a lubrication strip; a microfin skinguard (no idea what this is, but it sounds good). Then you got battery-powered razors, then ones with a rotating head.

Every year, Gillette added some useful gizmo that made the product better, and it was this — plus a big TV budget — that powered its phenomenal growth in market share to the point of 60-70%.

So I see Gillette’s adoption of purpose in this case as the last resort of the desperate, having given up on product benefit and improvement.

But that is not to say, necessarily, that you cannot get purpose right. And here’s an interesting example — from Gillette UK no less — of it making an effort to do so by supporting barbers who give the homeless a trim.

This is what you might call purpose with a small ‘p’ — applied, of direct benefit to individuals, visible and, above all, measurable. The parsnips are buttered.

Instead, in the US, it has adopted purpose with a big ‘P’: vague, of no direct benefit to you or me and, worst of all, beyond measurability. There is no way Gillette will be able to say, at the end of three years, what it achieved.

And if Gillette’s toxic masculinity campaign wins a purpose prize at the festival of self-congratulation, aka Cannes, I will be tempted to slit my wrists — but not with one of its products.

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WalterDenny, MD, Them on 24 Jan 2019
“At last the voice of reason.”

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17 Jun 2019 

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