What’s On

The worst a man can get

During military service, mornings began with a mandatory shave, using cold water and a first-generation razor from Gillette. There was no better preparation for the battlefield. Until Gillette ruined boot camp with effeminate lubricant strips, flexballs, proshields, beard-hair lifters and ever more blades.

But after 115 years of tinkering with the ideal scraper, Gillette has finally reached the end of the innovation trail. It’s being challenged by clever Dollar Shave Clubs and hirsute hipsters. To revitalise the baby-boomer brand and make it relevant for young adopters, it has abandoned commercial advertising – as Nike, Always and Pepsi had done previously – in favour of a societal charm offensive. After all, what is a company if not a spreadsheet? Gillette has taken a radical stand against the very masculinity that for decades had been the hallmark of its positioning.

A daring plan, but here’s a few questions:

1. Does Gillette have the right to jump onto the purpose bandwagon?
The usual critics cry no. Elitist bullshit! Even if you weren’t born Mother Teresa, you still have the right and the duty to start somewhere. It deserves encouragement, not aloof condemnation. Let a brand grow a heart!

2. Are men entitled to foreplay?
Absolutely, and Gillette could at least have turned on the pre-heater. An overnight switch from a detergent campaign to a PSA may be a bit much. You can’t re-educate a caveman into a metrosexual in mere minutes. It’s better to take your target group along for the ride, on a journey of improvement. After all, ideals take time.

3. What’s that thing about words and deeds?
Gillette is already crying its new purpose from the mountaintop before the ink on their donation to the Boys & Girls Clubs has even dried. A million bucks is no pittance, but as a cut from their €7.3 billion marketing budget it hardly qualifies as philanthropy. At this dilution we’re talking homoeopathy, not medicine. AkzoNobel had already been funding the Favela Painters in Rio long before they started talking about it. Walk before you talk! It makes you a lot less of a target for cynicism.

4. Biting the hand that feeds you – can you really get away with it?
A public denunciation of toxic masculinity may draw in the millennials, but it’s a slap in the face for the clean-shaven baby boomers, who keep the company afloat. A challenger can afford to enter the market by knocking down the door, but market leaders should be careful to avoid friendly fire. If you’ve got a 50 per cent share of the pie, serving up polarising stereotypes will only let you shoot yourself in the foot. Besides, stereotypes will soon be a thing of the past. The British advertising code already doesn’t let you portray women as chatty and subservient keepers of the cooking range. Or men as domineering ne’er-do-wells. That makes Gillette’s reboot from feel-good to feel-bad more than just risky – it’s illegal.

5. Has Gillette ever heard of the Brand Risk-Relevance Curve?
Peter Horst’s model shows that ‘playing purpose’ is a game with several levels of competency. Gillette’s brand values make a great launchpad for discussing masculine behaviour. But taking a hard stand, as Nike did with Colin Keapernick, requires years of preparation and a black belt.

Notwithstanding its professional peers foaming at the mouth, Gillette is nice and physical and also mentally available, so Byron Sharp is sure to be pleased. Consumers are indifferent: they still routinely toss the pricey razor blisters into their shopping carts, along with the customary potatoes and diapers. But the old campaign also had its risks. Federer threw a fit at last year’s US Open finals, and lost. Henry caught a lot of flak when he tried to win a World Championship match with a hand ball. And Woods’ main claim to fame were 13 extramarital affairs, including one with a porn star. With friends like these, a little razor burn after your latest shaving campaign is the least of your worries.

Dick van der Lecq

Dick van der Lecq is the Managing Director at DDB Unlimited. He was previously the Managing Partner at Etcetera.