The emperor’s new fragrance: Old Spice’s campaign failure

In this guest post, Cathie McGinn slays a sacred cow of 21st century marketing – the highly awarded Old Spice campaign.

One of the biggest myths of recent times (by which I mean a story of great heroism and triumph we’d all like to believe but deep down know to be untrue) is the Old Spice social media campaign. It’s been much lauded and awarded as an example of outstanding content, a creative and collaborative way of connecting with consumers and driving a record increase in sales.

old spice adThe Old Spice ‘Man Your Man Could Smell Like’ campaign was nimble, innovative and fun to talk about. It cheered the hearts of content producers and adland folk alike. It seemed to demonstrate that all the exciting rhetoric about building connections with consumers through two-way communication and fresh content had become a commercial reality.

But the truth is the viral campaign doesn’t tell the full story.

There was another less glamorous reason for the increase in sales: vouchers. Old-fashioned, buy-one-get-one-free coupons, some of which offered a return of $8 on a $4 product. It’s hard to make the case for the commercial viability of a radical new content idea when the manufacturer was literally giving the stuff away. And any discussion of brand reappraisal goes quiet when you look at figures that clearly demonstrate the second the coupon campaign came to an end, sales flatlined.

But before we heave a collective sigh and go back to the old routine, let’s examine why the campaign didn’t hit the mark. However fun and exhilarating interacting with the Old Spice guy and his crack team of writers is, it doesn’t alter the fact that the scent of Old Spice reminds me of my dad. It probably reminds you of my dad, too, if not your own.

In short, the 73-year-old product itself, when disconnected from the suave beauty of Isaiah Mustafa and his slick, quick wit, does not say any of the things we want a fragrance to. It smells like a comforting hug from a geriatric.

The content doesn’t connect.

The ambition was to have people re-evaluate the product, not the marketing campaign. I love more or less everything advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy do. Their storytelling abilities are consistently brilliant, but in this instance, they told a story about themselves, not the brand in question.

A genuinely radical example of two-way communication through a content idea would have been to find out what consumers actually want to smell like, then deliver it to them, market by market.

The Old Spice campaign is the biggest missed marketing opportunity of the 21st century. It succeeded in taking the brand to a new audience, but stopped short of using the amazing levels of engagement generated to tie the content to the product.

As a comparative content idea, the VB fridge – which ensures cans of Victoria Bitter are always at the optimum drinking temperature – will likely be more successful as it connects the product with the content in the right context.

VB – the beer you’re glad your beer doesn’t have to taste like.

Cathie McGinn is strategy director at media agency MindShare.


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