Gillette’s CEO and president, Gary Coombe, says that angering some consumers with its #metoo campaign was a “price worth paying” if it meant the brand could increase its relevance among younger consumers and turn around its falling market share.
In January, the shaving brand launched a campaign in response to the Me Too movement that urged men to hold each other to a higher standard and to step up when they see fellow men acting inappropriately. The video received intense criticism on social media, with some even calling for a boycott of the brand
However, Coombe claims most of the negative commentary came as a result of targeting by two alt-right group in the US. These groups used bots to post thousands of negative comments on the video in the first 24 hours after its release, manipulating the reaction and sparking a negative media storm.
Breaking advertising’s golden rule
Gillette made the decision to launch the campaign in a bid to target the millennial market. Coombe said the 188-year-old brand, which is owned by Procter & Gamble, was “gently slipping away for [this] generation” as disruptors such as Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club grabbed attention.
But Coombe admitted Gillette’s strategy hadn’t helped. He explains: “The worst thing during through that period was, we also lost connection with the millennial generation. Gillette quickly became the brand of the millennial generation’s dads.
“It was pretty stark: we were losing share, we were losing awareness and penetration, and something had to be done,” he says, speaking at the British Brands annual lecture last week.
Coombes realised that to turn this around, it would need to “take a chance in an emotionally-charged way”. The campaign was the result of more than a year of work on how to connect with millennials, with the version that was finally released the 13th edit and “less provocative” than previous iterations.
We were breaking the golden rule: don’t piss of your consumers.
Gary Coombe, Gillette
He explained: “I don’t think we could come at this challenge incrementally, I don’t think we could do it carefully or softly; we needed something to transform the business and that was what we set out to do.”
Coombe admitted the Gillette ad broke the “golden rule” of advertising: don’t piss of your consumers. But he is adamant it was the right choice.
He explained: “I don’t enjoy that some people were offended by the film and upset at the brand as a consequence. That’s not nice and goes against every ounce of training I’ve had in this industry over a third of a century.
“But I am absolutely of the view now that for the majority of people to fall more deeply in love with today’s brands you have to risk upsetting a small minority and that’s what we’ve done.”
Managing the backlash
Coombe spoke honestly about finding the first few days following the film’s release “very difficult”, adding that despite expecting a backlash he was unprepared for the “intense” reactions from a variety of stakeholders.
He said: “When you step into the fray, do something like this, it’s an extremely challenging moment. I was initially worried about consumer reaction but one of the things I learnt very quickly is there are multiple stakeholders to worry about.”
In the end, he had to consider reaction from not just customers but also employees, retailers, the bosses at P&G and shareholders. One shareholder was so incensed at the ad he left a voicemail that included swearing and threats to get the whole marketing department on Gillette sacked.
To manage the reaction, Coombe and his team had a crisis meeting every hour and brought in industry experts to advise them on how best to react.
He also believes it was important he remain calm in front of his team: “You can’t let the pressure translate to your department.”
He added: “I did have my doubts, but I like to think [the team] didn’t see that across those first few days. Instead, I got all the employees together and I said, ‘look, we’re doing the right thing and we will prevail’.”
One person who was always on Gillette’s side was P&G’s CEO David Taylor, who Coombe said was “fabulous”.
He explained: “I called him very quickly on that Monday [the film launched] and he was keen to understand what was going on. At the end of it he said, ‘you do what you need to Gary and I’ll stand by you’. That was a demonstration of trust and empowerment that I had rarely felt before.”
Did the controversy pay off?
There’s no doubting the ad spread quickly online. Within a week, it had 110 million views and 18 billion media impressions. Interest was so high that Gillette cancelled the vast majority of its planned media investment, meaning it spent only $104 of its budget.
There were conversations internally about taking it down, with Coombe admitting it was a “close call”. However, Coombe believes that decision was vindicated because it sparked a conversation about men’s behaviour, as well as one about the role of brands, and because in the end more people praised the ad then criticised it.
“The silent majority spoke up for us,” he noted.
Coombe claimed the ad was also a commercial success for P&G, particularly in the US. He cited figures which show that since the ad launched, 65% of consumers are more likely to purchase Gillette. Among millennials, that figure was even higher, with 84% of women aged under 35 and 76% of men saying they would be more likely to purchase from the brand.
The number of consumers who believe Gillette shares their values also increased, from 42% before the campaign to more than 70% after. This has helped the brand return to growth in the US, Coombe claimed, although he didn’t give any figures.
Coombe said: “Gillette now is getting talked about in mainstream media in a very positive and meaningful way and is achieving something that in conventional marketing terms would have taken five years or $3m or $4m [of marketing investment].”
Why backing a social cause is a ‘requirement’ for brands
Coombe believes the backing social causes and talking about values is now a “requirement” for brands.
He explained: “In the good old days, your brand delivered a functional benefit, you created a piece of advertising to demonstrate that on TV, and you moved on and really didn’t comment on anything else. That is simply not the case any more.”
Coombe advises other brands to ensure any cause they get behind is a holistic part of their business that they invest time and money in both internally and externally.
He said: “Whatever you choose has to be congruent with your brand and equity, you have to talk about it with authenticity, have credibility, and you need to back it up financially and believe it as a brand.”
He concluded: “Brands have always been a source of business growth for the world and a source of good in the world and I am convinced brands need to play both roles in order to survive.”
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