P&G: Fix What’s Under the Hood

Dawn with Oil of Olay20 years ago, Gillette introduced a campaign that completely re-energized its brand and company.

It was “The Best A Man Can Get” and its zippy song, sung by the nation’s top jingle-writer and singer Jake Holmes, talked about “looking sharp” and showed a succession of non-celebrity, clean-shaven normal men going to work, running in races, and hugging wives at the airport. Launched at a time when grunge was ascendant, it re-asserted Gillette not only as a corporate icon, but a clean-shaven one at that.

The 1989 campaign came at a perfect time for the then Boston-based company, as it subsequently unleashed a steady succession of blockbuster razors like Sensor. At that time wasn’t just razors; Gillette was brands like Right Guard anti-perspirant, Duracell batteries and Foamy shaving cream.

Gillette is now part of Proctor & Gamble. And has it ever changed under the auspices of P&G. Today, if you go on Gillette’s YouTube site, instead of elegantly done commercials extolling the virtues being clean shaven, there are strange messages. There are Tiger Woods “Phenom” videos. Not bad, but it misses as instead of a normal-guy product-driven shaving message, it’s an expensive “we’re so cool” non-strategy. (Furthermore, I don’t ever recall P&G needing to use celebrities in their advertising until recently.) Then there are strange Fusion razor videos, with odd techno music and a discussion of the merits of five blades.

Nasty, nasty

Worst of all, there is the Gillette body shaving series, where cartoon video character talks to young men about the virtues of “trimming the bush to make the tree look taller” and the “unique topographical features under the hood.” The video has 1.5 million views, which is a hit. But is it doing the right thing by the Gillette brand? The ad ends with: “Be adventurous. Go ahead have some fun.” So we have gone in our marketing from “father to son” to encouraging young men to go out and get some?

The YouTube comments nail it.

Just the fact that they have a single blade on the reverse side for “those tricky areas” should be evidence enough that the whole more blades=better is stupid bull****. I use a double blade cheapo piece of crap razor …. $7 for 4 blades? Are you joking?!

Another one made me laugh too:

hey gillette stop adding videos on how to shave your pubes and armpits. its digustiong and disturbing. wtf

To me, the Gillette mis-branding illustrates the problems under P&G’s hood. If you run a five-year chart comparing P&G, Clorox (CLX) and Colgate Palmolive (CL), P&G is the also ran, its stock down around 4 percent compared to Clorox (up about 12 percent) and Colgate (up 35 percent).

What are some of the reasons?

  • Tide is selling partly a discount brand, when, frankly, it should never be connected to the word discount. The company calls it a “portfolio” strategy but it is really taking a great brand down-market. Let’s call it the “Sybil” strategy. You never know which Sally Field will show up!
  • While I don’t mind a bit of Dawn in my Cascade, I am confused with Febreze in my Mr. Clean and all other manner of mixed brands. The brand images get all confused, and I get weary.
  • P&G screwed up its purchase of Baltimore-based Noxell, the parent company of Noxzema. It turned what was the nation’s highest quality shaving cream, Noxzema Shave, into an also-ran brand that it subcontracted out to another company. The face creams, which lived somewhere between medicine and beauty products, were turned into mostly anti-acne products. It sold the company to Alberto-Culver for $81 million; Alberto-Culver says its quality was substandard and some of the Noxzema it got looked like cottage cheese. Alberto recently sued P&G, claiming it was misled. How embarrassing for P&G. How costly for both companies, and a great brand name, Noxzema.
  • It has had a strange foray into luxury brands with the purchase of the fashion house Rochas. While there are certainly high margins in luxury brands, the genius of P&G is that it makes everyday products a luxury brand for all. It first shut down the Rochas fashion brand, and restarted it. What the heck is P&G doing with an Italian fashion house?
  • It sold Folgers. Brands like Folgers allowed regular, if sometimes unimpressive returns. The reason for having products like Folgers is the consistent returns, through ups and downs. It builds a baseline when fewer folks are buying Oil of Olay.
  • It is adding Oil of Olay to Dawn. Frankly, we never cared about our hands getting soft with Dawn. We wanted to KILL the grease with Dawn. Palmolive, instead, is the brand for hands. Frankly, if I were Colgate Palmolive, I would say that is getting PRETTY close to old Madge, eh?
  • It has lost interest in soap operas. This sad tale has been un-noticed by most, but it signals a change from over half-a-century tradition. Guiding Light leaves the airwaves this September; Another World is already gone. There has been fan interest in watching these shows on the web, but nothing has come of it; what is useful to remember about Guiding Light is that it moved from radio to television, and could easily survive on the web and on cable. Furthermore, the P&G soaps could be developed into a New York tourist attraction, with their millions of fans. Total missed opportunity.

At its best, P&G stands for simple, clear declarative brands (Tide, Sure, Crest) that deliver superior value at a slightly premium price. Right now, I am confused by the number of sub-brand “portfolios” at P&G. Is the Charmin the good Charmin, or the cheap version? Which Tide is best? And how many types of Crest do we need?

Each of these product decisions might work to sell more of a particular product at a particular time. But overall, it becomes confusing to consumers, and far more expensive to sustain.

All of this not to say that P&G is not a worthwhile company. The cash it produces each month is formidable. Each time I use Dawn or Cascade, I am stunned at how well it works, for such a price. But if P&G is to be the company that it was, it needs to go back to selling the highest quality brands with a minimum of fuss. And it needs to stay away from trashy marketing with Gillette.


  • Garland Pollard

    J. Garland Pollard IV is editor/publisher of BrandlandUSA. Since 2006, the website BrandlandUSA.com has chronicled the history and business of America’s great brands.


  1. Gillette razors, Old Spice and Right Guard were staples in my dad’s side of the medicine cabinet throughout the 1960s and 70s. I learned to shave (my face only – never entered my mind to shave elsewhere) using a Gillette razor in 1976 (and a can of Palmolive lime shaving cream). I still buy Gillette razor blades for my 1989 Sensor and it’s fine. I don’t need 5 or 10 or 25 blades LOL with multi lube strips and that weird shaped Fusion handle (it’s clumsy looking. I prefer my old simple Sensor handle).
    With the interest of 4 million regular viewers of Mad Men on TV you’d think that P&G would be smart enough to recognize the popularity of 1960s products and how the youth of today likes them and would buy them. And putting these products back in their 60s packaging with the 60s logos and motifs would be a very smart move.

  2. It was a sad day when P&G bought Old Spice. Look what they have done to this brand and product. Sure, legacy brands like Old Spice face a slow, inevitable death, because they have a hard time staying relevant or new when trying to encourage new users. New users want fresh and youthful, not always grampa and pops. Brut is being marketed badly. Same with Gillette, totally missing the mark. P&G is under the impression that the kids doing the shaving want high tech gels with computerized razors and that good ol’ shaving cream is a legacy product that needs to go away. Read the can of Gillette Foamy these days, with words like “classic”. Try to do a Google on Gillette Foamy and you keep getting routed to Gillette Fusion or Gillette ProGlide. It’s as if they are ashamed of Gillette and it’s history. Much the same with Old Spice, though you can still find a few old timey black and white Old Spice commercials on YouTube.

  3. It’s all about the blades, man. Five is clearly better. Eleven would be best.

    I’m still waiting for Gillete Limited Edition Spinal Tap Razor, complete with eleven razor blades.

    Nigel Tufnel: What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?
    Marty DiBergi: Put it up to eleven.
    Nigel Tufnel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.

  4. I remember well the cottage-cheese consistency of some Noxema skin cream (was not aware that it has been sold–again–hope that’s for the good). Frankly, I loathe the kind of “brand extension” that results in the addition of Febreze or any other miracle scent to any non-air freshener product. We like the old-fashioned original blue Dawn, the kind used to clean wild bird feathers after an oil spill. You have to look really carefully to find a version of it with no additives.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *