Gillette’s new bullying-and-#MeToo–focused publicity campaign, launched yesterday with a two-minute web video, inverts the company’s slogan, changing “Gillette: The Best a Man Can Get” to “The Best a Man Can Be.” In doing so, it takes the “man” out of a dependent clause (“Gillette” is the subject of the original slogan, with an implied “is” to follow) and makes him the main subject.
This is important: Instead of offering the man something, the slogan now asks him to do something. Gillette has spent decades making him the best razors it could; now it’s the man’s turn to deliver.
Whatever this is, it isn’t marketing.
Gillette’s message — that something has too often gone wrong in masculinity, and that men ought to evaluate whether they are doing enough to combat bullying and mistreatment of women — is correct. But the viewer is likely to ask: Who is Gillette to tell me this? I just came here for razors. And razors barely even feature in Gillette’s new campaign.
YouTube likes are running four-to-one against Gillette’s new ad; for comparison, the YouTube response to Nike’s controversial ad with Colin Kaepernick runs seven-to-one in favor. What should worry Gillette is not so much the rebukes from the set of commentators you might expect (like Piers Morgan and Brian Kilmeade) but the lack of an apparent groundswell of positive reaction that Nike got for its campaign with Kaepernick.
I wrote earlier this year about the wisdom of Nike’s choice, and about the changing pressures on companies that make them more inclined to weigh in on controversial social issues, usually from the left. A controversy can alienate customers, but it can also attract them, as Nike has shown with its rising sales following the risk it took with Kaepernick.
The difference in reaction to the two campaigns shows the limits of “woke capital,” and helps us see what kinds of social change companies will and won’t be successful at pushing. Nike’s campaign appeals to customers — and drives Nike’s sales — to the extent it reflects customers’ existing values back at them. That does not mean companies have the cultural capital to do what Gillette is trying: asking customers to reflect on and change their own behavior.
The Nike-Kaepernick campaign is, at its heart, an upbeat product campaign. Kaepernick is a famous professional athlete and a famous political activist, and the brand video featuring him is full of athletes performing in Nike apparel. His admonition to “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything,” dovetails with Nike’s long-standing brand message to “just do it.” Kaepernick reinforces a message that Nike stands for bold action — on and off the field — and makes many customers inclined to spend on Nike products, which they probably wear more often off the field than on it.
Nike’s message to customers is uplifting rather than accusatory. It doesn’t urge them to interrogate their roles in societal structures that may cause oppression, let alone the roles played by corporations like Nike. It skips past that, looking toward a solution rather than a problem. The Gillette campaign, by comparison, is a downer.
Of course, sometimes people deserve to be accused. But brands do not enjoy the corrective moral authority that might be enjoyed by a church or a family or a group of community elders to tell people that they are failing to live by the right values and should change their ways. The brand works for its customers, not the other way around.
On its TheBestaManCanBe.org, Gillette tries to explain why it believes its role is to bring this up:
“It’s time we acknowledge that brands, like ours, play a role in influencing culture. And as a company that encourages men to be their best, we have a responsibility to make sure we are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man.”
This feels awfully self-important on Gillette’s part. Compared to most personal-care products, razor marketing tends to be especially focused on product performance rather than intangible, what-your-razor-says-about-you questions. Gillette tells men it makes the best razors with the right number of blades, and people (including me — I’m a Gillette customer) buy them because they expect a closer, smoother, less-irritating shave than the competitor can provide.
If I were going to pick a Procter & Gamble brand built around a particular image of masculinity that’s due for adjustment in the #MeToo era, I would have started with Old Spice, not Gillette.
Gillette’s reputation for manufacturing competence may be what protects them from alienating customers through this campaign. Gillette is not a lifestyle brand. Unlike with Nike, buying Gillette products doesn’t mean displaying the Gillette logo when you walk around. Customers may be less likely to abandon a product because they feel accused by the brand when their emotional relationship to the brand wasn’t the point to begin with.
On the other hand, Gillette faces competition from e-commerce competitors whose central brand pitch is that Gillette’s claim of superior quality is baseless, and that if you switch to their cheaper products, you won’t notice a difference. Dollar Shave Club is already eager to welcome alienated Gillette customers. If customers who dislike the new Gillette pitch shop around and decide the competition is right, they’ll have two reasons not to come back: this campaign, and price.
And Gillette’s potential upside from a values-based campaign is severely limited. It already has about 50 percent market share, which limits its ability to acquire new customers through demonstrations of shared values. Nike benefits from a more fragmented market for athletic apparel, and also from its ability to increase customer intensity: If customers get really into Nike, they can buy more products and more expensive products. Someone who is really into this Gillette campaign is unlikely to start shaving three times as much.
Nike has shown why companies can be smart to speak out about social change. I believe Gillette has now shown why that can be a mistake. And combined, they show the boundaries of useful social activism by brands: They can harness and amplify the existing views of their customers, but that doesn’t mean they have the power to push their customers to change. Doing that will have to be someone else’s responsibility.