How Unilever Scored With Young Guys

Picture this: streaming video of a guy named Gareth, with messy blond hair, T-shirt, shorts, and shades standing on a Miami sidewalk. He's about to try out a pick-up move called Your Song. "Hey there, beauty queen, beautiful girl that I ever seen," he belts out to the target of his affection. "Bleeeeep!" responds the woman before walking away.

You will find this clip of Gareth -- and plenty more of him and his buddy Evan -- on a video Weblog that's like a reality TV show of the characters' attempts to attract the opposite sex. It's all part of Unilever Group's latest attempt to sell Axe deodorant body spray to young guys. The streaming video, plus downloads to cell phones and Sony (SNE ) PlayStations this summer, a video game, blogs, and chatrooms are all helping Axe keep its position as the top-selling male body spray, with 80% of the market.

The campaign also represents a big shift in the business of brand building. Consumer-goods manufacturers such as Unilever and their ad agencies are downgrading the importance of the 30-second TV spot. It's easy to see why, when the target audience is 18- to 24-year-old men who zap most ads as if they were Lawrence Welk reruns. Unilever believes that if it can create compelling entertainment on the Net and in game venues where guys spend time, it can foster brand loyalty. "This is all about going beyond the 30-second TV commercial to create a deeper bond with our guy," says Unilever Marketing Director Kevin George.

When Unilever first launched Axe in the U.S. in 2002 -- at a stroke inventing a whole new male grooming subcategory called body spray -- it relied more heavily on television. The first ads were certainly sufficiently racy to catch young guys' attention: They showed beautiful women ravishing store mannequins that had been sprayed with Axe. Unilever also deployed Axe Angels -- girl-next-door types who roamed store aisles lifting men's shirts and spraying them with Axe.

But pretty soon, Unilever began channeling more dollars into the Internet. Next came too-racy-for-TV video clips on www.theaxeeffect.com, which included graphic content aimed at getting twentysomething men to e-mail clips to their friends. "You have to engage young guys on their own turf," says Kevin Roberts, worldwide CEO for Saatchi & Saatchi. Now, Unilever is counting on the evanandgareth.com videoblog to keep the buzz going. The consumer-goods giant enlisted Conductor, a Santa Monica (Calif.) marketing firm that promoted the Spiderman films, to help launch the site in April. On May 18 an online video game called Mojo Master will appear; players can test their moves on virtual vixens using their home PCs.

The result of all this Axe wielding? Besides the commanding market share lead, Mike Bloom, senior vice-president for drugstore chain CVS Corp., says he has never seen such an explosive launch in the deodorant aisle, nor a product that drove as many young men to those shelves. "[They're] buying two to three cans at once," says Bloom.

As original as the Axe strategy has been, it will be an enormous challenge to keep the campaign fresh. Evan and Gareth's tour ends in August; by that time the two could well be played out. After that, Unilever knows it can't revert to pitching 24-hour underarm protection. Whatever the next stage of the Axe strategy is, look for it on the Internet and on cell phones, not on television.

By Robert Berner in Chicago

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