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Hello, ladies. Look at your man, now back to me, now back at your man, now back to me. Sadly, he isn’t me, but if he stopped using ladies scented body wash and switched to Old Spice, he could smell like he’s me. 

With just 43 words, Old Spice did the impossible. Back in 2009, the only person using Old Spice was your grandpa. The brand started way back in 1937, which is roughly the same as the birth year of the youngest people still using the product at the time. The smell of the future was Axe Body Spray.

Or at least it was, until “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign in 2010. Here it is if you’ve never seen it (or want to remember it with fond nostalgia).

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Old Spice knew their target audience wasn’t going to be around forever, so they had a tough decision to make. On the one hand, they could accept the brand’s seemingly inevitable fate, leaving its corporate bosses at Procter & Gamble to make money another way. On the other, they could do that most fearsome task loathed by marketers everywhere: attempt to appeal to young people.

They chose option 2 – the marketing Hail Mary. Lo and behold, the company went on to more than double their sales within a few months, making their deodorants and body washes the products to beat for every guy under 30.

Turning an old man’s brand into something youthful and cool is nearly impossible. But Old Spice did it, and even 12 years (and a recall) later, it’s worth talking about why.

How Old Spice Became an “Old” Brand

Before we can have a meaningful discussion about the effects of “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” ad campaign, we need to talk about what Old Spice was before the campaign. 

Old Spice was quite literally an old brand before the new ad campaign came along. It was started in 1934 and its first product for men was made in 1938. The brand continued to grow over the course of the next 50 years, and eventually Procter & Gamble bought it for $300 million in 1990.

Old Spice might be the choice scent of millennials these days, but that’s a relatively recent trend. As late as the 2000s, Old Spice was associated with millennials’ grandparents rather than millennials themselves. Just look at these old bottles with the nautical motifs. That is some prime pre-Baby Boomer branding right there.

Not being sarcastic – these are genuinely beautiful vintage designs.

And to old Old Spice’s credit, that approach worked really well, and they could have milked it to its very last dollar and then silently disappeared without a trace from Procter & Gamble’s portfolio. Old brands die all the time. It’s the circle of life.

Prior to the revolutionary ad campaign that breathed new life into the brand, Old Spice was slowly declining. In 2008, they were losing significant market share in the body wash and deodorant markets. They were getting axed by Axe.

But Old Spice did not go gentle into the good night.

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Enter “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” Ad Campaign

It’s rare to pull off a successful rebrand for a very old product line. It’s even rarer to do so with a single commercial.

But if you watch the commercial again, it’s not hard to see why it worked.

Hello, ladies, look at your man, now back to me, now back at your man, now back to me. Sadly, he isn’t me, but if he stopped using ladies scented body wash and switched to Old Spice, he could smell like he’s me.

Look down, back up, where are you? You’re on a boat with the man your man could smell like. What’s in your hand, back at me. I have it, it’s an oyster with two tickets to that thing you love. Look again, the tickets are now diamonds. Anything is possible when your man smells like Old Spice and not a lady. I’m on a horse.

“The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign was released on February 4, 2010. That was just mere days before Super Bowl XLIV. And while the Saints thrashed the Colts that year, I’d argue that Old Spice actually won the game.

The 33-second campaign starred Isaiah Mustafa, a football player now known to everyone as the “Old Spice Man.” It didn’t take long for the campaign to catch the attention of people far and wide, and it performed particularly well on the internet.

He who controls the Old Spice controls the universe.

And when you watch it, it’s not hard to see why. It’s a sight to see Mustafa deliver lines making intense eye contact with the camera in a single take as the background changes behind him. His monologue is confident, nonchalant, and the essence of suave.

Yet at the same time, it’s also quite a subversive ad. It’s making fun of the ideas of masculinity and advertising while depicting masculinity and being advertorial to the extreme. If there is any word to describe this kind of style, it’s “postmodern.”

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But one of the most remarkable things about the commercial is easy to miss between the humor and the slick editing. Mustafa is talking directly to women. That might seem like an odd choice for a men’s body wash commercial, but it was actually very smart. The bulk of men’s body wash is actually bought by women for men. Old Spice figured “why don’t we just talk to the real purchasers here?”

And, boy, did it work.

The Stunning Success of the Ad Campaign

We’re a jaded people as a society when it comes to ads. Every single one of us has had mediocre products hocked at us since we were old enough to talk. The average person is estimated to see 6,000 to 10,000 ads every single day. More than half of people in 2007 say that advertising is “out of control” – and they didn’t even have sophisticated internet ads yet!

Now if you’re seeing that many ads in a day, how many can possibly be leaving any impression at all, let alone a favorable one? I’d wager the answer is not very many, considering that the average consumer needs to be exposed to a marketing message at least seven times to take action.

But novelty helps a lot, and “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign was certainly novel. It’s easy to forget this with all the knock-offs and imitators, but when this came on the scene in 2010, there was nothing else like it.

Even today, after being imitated by wannabes for so long, it still plays better than your average commercial almost 12 years later. Ads age like milk. I mean, have you tried watching the “Wazzup” commercial from 2000 in the last few years? It’s genuinely hard to sit through.

Quantifying the impact of “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” ad campaign

It’s notoriously difficult to quantify how good an advertisement is. To do so, you need to measure “marketing lift” – the increase of sales that can be tied back to an ad or a promotion. Unless you’re doing small scale digital marketing campaigns with rigorous conversion tracking, measuring lift is a job for data scientists at best and a fool’s errand at worst.

And then there are times when the marketing lift is so unambiguous that you can’t deny it. “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” Campaign was one of those times.

First, check out the massive spike in Google search volume for “Old Spice” around 2010. Note that the campaign resulted in 10 to 20 times the amount of search traffic in 2004-2009. Traffic then remained permanently elevated every year following.

Then there is a bevy of eye-popping statistics that show just how “viral” the campaign went.

  • 5.9 million YouTube views on Day 1
  • 40 million YouTube views within a week
  • A 27-fold increase in Twitter followers
  • A 9-fold increase in Facebook engagement
  • Quadrupled traffic on oldspice.com
  • Sales increased by 125%

It’s said that Old Spice managed to earn 1.2 BILLION media impressions with this campaign. Fox Business ranked it among the top 5 ad campaigns of the 21st century. And, of course, it spawned tons of imitators of varying quality.

Sometimes, the success or failure of marketing campaigns is a matter of opinion and objectives. Other times, an ad campaign just succeeds on every conceivable front and there’s no room for debate.

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How Old Spice Redefined Its Brand

But if you ask me, the sales bump, avalanche of ad impressions, and mob of social media followers do not highlight the true success of the campaign. After all, you can have a great ad campaign, make a few bucks, pad your savings account, and then go right back into obscurity. It’s the day-to-day, long-haul profitability that really keeps companies going.

Old Spice didn’t just have a good 2010. It’s had a good decade. It has become the scent of youth and has had great sales figures throughout the 2010s.

Success like that can only come from great products for the right target audience, and a brand that resonates with people. And that’s the real beauty of this campaign. Old Spice was already rebranding its company, but it needed to make its new brand stick. This commercial did that.

Using Archetypes to Make Brands Stick

But why did it stick, exactly? I’d argue it’s because the brand switched archetypes. (Read more on archetypes here.)

The original Old Spice brand was down-to-earth and simple. It was a faithful friend for a nearly bygone generation. If I had to give the original Old Spice an archetype, I’d call it The Everyman.

But the new Old Spice? It’s 100% a Jester. It’s lighthearted, fun, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. The Everyman wants to make you feel included, The Jester wants to make you laugh. 

Think about it – their branding is loud and in your face, and the humor is everywhere. That includes their website, commercials, social media, and packaging among other things.

It’s a perfect match for their goals too. The idea of traditional masculinity seems – now and from the perspective of a decade ago – ridiculous and out-of-place in the modern world. But yet a lot of guys, I’d wager most, including myself, want to live up to at least some of the ideals.

So what does Old Spice do? They make the manliest man to ever man and have him man up the place by being extremely manly for 33 seconds. Their commercials, and branding in general, are an assault of swagger, personality, and wit.

And look at those sales figures again – it worked like Isaiah Mustafa’s charm.

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Old Spice Called Its Shot & Then Made It

Making a commercial like “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” and playing it during the Super Bowl is like saying “eight ball, corner pocket” and actually making the shot.

Old Spice spent a lot of time and money on the rebrand, and that’s a gutsy maneuver for a brand that seemed like it was on its way out. Rebranding takes a ton of effort. Super Bowl airtime is really expensive, as is hiring a legendary ad agency like Wieden+Kennedy.

But they did this because they knew they did not have viable alternatives. They wanted their new products seen by as many people as possible so they paid for the big commercial slot and hired one of the best ad agencies in the business. The goal was to get as many impressions as possible. In other words, they wanted the whole bar to hear them call their shot.

Sales spiked afterward, as customers were curious about how Old Spice had changed. Old Spice knew that they had to deliver a good product, though, because even the best commercials lose relevance quickly. That 125% spike in sales was going to fade.

And sure, the spike in sales faded. But their overall sales remained higher than before and stayed that way. Cumulatively, over years and years, the increased average sales have long since overshadowed the initial cash shower caused by the famous ad in 2010.

They rebranded for attention, but ended up retaining customers, which is a lot more important. And the reason for that retention? Simply put, it’s just a good set of products. A quick look on Amazon reveals a sea of products with 4.7 and 4.8 average reviews. 

Eight ball, meet corner pocket.

The 4 Key Innovations of “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like”

With all this context in mind, I want to summarize the four things that made this campaign stand out.

1. Old Spice proactively addressed its demographic problem

The folks in charge of Old Spice knew that their brand was appealing to older customers that wouldn’t be around forever. As Old Spice is a brand owned by Procter & Gamble, there are a number of ways that the powers-that-be could have chosen to handle this problem. The easiest way to deal with this problem would be to sunset Old Spice and debut something new entirely.

But the folks at Procter & Gamble didn’t push Old Spice to do that, which is really interesting. Instead, they let their marketing department tackle the problem head-on with an innovative approach. This is much less common than it should be, as Procter & Gamble’s risk certainly paid off when Old Spice came back firing on all eight cylinders.

2. Old Spice did its research, and it’s clear the understood the then-new media landscape of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter

Deciding to change the entire Old Spice brand from an Everyman to a Jester shows a good understanding of how young people were thinking at the time. The suits at Old Spice picked up on the fact that selling men’s body wash is kind of a silly thing to do, so they just decided to have fun with it.

And that’s just the rebranding in general. The ad campaign was the first ad campaign that I can remember that “felt like the internet.” The ad was cut like a YouTube video, not a late 2000s TV ad. It had non-sequiturs in dialogue, was shot in a single take, and didn’t take itself seriously.

The agency that created the ad, Wieden+Kennedy, clearly studied the structure and style of popular YouTube videos and mimicked them with grace. To really drive this point home, I want you to remember that YouTube then was as old as TikTok now. Marketers might have figured out how to use YouTube by 2021, but most of them sure haven’t figured out TikTok yet!

3. Old Spice addressed the real purchaser – women

Nearly every analysis of the Old Spice commercial that I’ve read – at the time and now – focuses on the humor of the ad, arguing that this is the reason for its success. I certainly don’t disagree, and in fact, I think the humor did a lot of heavy lifting.

But ultimately, every ad has to be directed at someone. An ad generally needs to talk to the person who uses the product or the person who’s buying it – and these two people are not necessarily one and the same.

A lot of men’s body wash ads were talking directly to men before this commercial came out. As discussed earlier, though, women are doing about 60% of the actual men’s body wash purchasing. So the ad here literally starts with “hello, ladies.”

Does this ad work when shown to men? Absolutely, and that’s part of its cleverness! Yet it’s still an ad targeted at women. It uses second-person pronouns for women and third-person pronouns for men. There’s even hetero sex appeal at play here – the commercial’s premise centers around a shirtless football player.

4. Old Spice was ready for a full scale rebrand before the commercial, and then they put money behind it

For all the talk of clever marketing campaigns and good strategy, a lot of marketing comes down to proper budgeting. Or more bluntly, spending a lot of money on advertising and promotion.

Yes, Old Spice put in the work and rebranded their entire business. That was a critical part of their success. Yet all the work for the rebranding would have been for nought if they didn’t put some serious dollars behind the campaign. They needed to get seen and talked about. They needed a chance to acquire tons of new customers because that was going to lay the groundwork for the much more important long-term goal of customer retention.

So how do you get those impressions? Well, an expensive Superbowl commercial will do the trick!

Do you personally have to spend an enormous amount of money to put your brand on the map? No.

But does a legacy brand with 80 years of baggage and the coffers of Procter & Gamble need to spend money to successfully execute a rebranding campaign? Yes.

Final Thoughts

“The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign helped bring Old Spice back from the brink of irrelevance as their original customers grew more senescent with each passing day. The company took on the Herculean task of rebranding an old product for a young audience and succeeded.

You may not be the CMO of a $300 million brand, but at least one thing will be the same for you as it is for Old Spice. It’s really important to know who your audience is and whether your brand is sending them the messages they want to hear.

Keep tweaking and keep experimenting. One day, something might click and you could see clear, unambiguous success just like the Old Spice Guy.

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