Barbasol Attempts A Comeback

4 Ways NOT To Revive A Solid Citizen Brand

The Advertising Column from The New York Times reports this week that the aging, low-price alternative, Barbasol shaving cream brand is launching a major marketing campaign carrying the theme, “Shave Like A Man.” According to the article, TV commercials feature “manly archetypes of the past – a pioneer on the Oregon Trail in 1854, a baseball player in 1920, a G.I. fighting in 1944 – (talking) directly to their current-day male descendants.”

Barbasol belongs to a large segment of brands I affectionately call “Solid Citizens.” These brands might be personified by someone like Sean Connery, who as James Bond in 1965, was the sexiest man alive. Now he’s a nice old man. Still respected, just not as exciting.

Most brands you see in the supermarket and the drug store are Solid Citizens, as are so many others in categories ranging from fast food (KFC/Pizza Hut) to technology (Sony/Microsoft).

Nary a month goes by without another “Barbasol Story,” the announcement of a breakthrough marketing campaign that’s going to restore some poor, tired, old brand to its former glory.

Unfortunately, most brands are not revitalized as a result of great new advertising, but out of dumb luck. Like Pabst Blue Ribbon or Hush Puppies. There was no brilliant strategy in place for either. As Malcolm Gladwell writes in the Tipping Point, Hush Puppies “went viral” after a being embraced by a handful of hipsters in New York City.

The problem with Solid Citizen Brands is that most companies, with the exception of Procter & Gamble, are just too afraid or too out of touch to do what they need to do.

I’m not too optimistic about Barbasol’s chances. The campaign rings hollow, a paint-by-numbers effort that brings four major Solid Citizen blunders into focus.

1.    No Product News

First, they’ve done nothing with their product. It appears to be the same stuff in the same can.  Some Solid Citizen brands, those with distinctive, traditional recipes or formulations like Dewar’s Scotch, for example, shouldn’t be touched.  Original product integrity is too important.  Personal care or any products that embrace technology are different stories. By providing no product news, no breakthroughs, not even scent or packaging changes, Barbasol is essentially saying that it’s still just the same old, cheap, generic shaving cream it always was. There’s no reason to take another look at it.

In contrast, Old Spice, which is hands down the best Solid Citizen revival of the past decade, made major changes to individual products and product lines, providing body wash, antiperspirant/deodorant and fragrance users lots of reasons to try the brand again.

2.     Ill Conceived Brand Positioning

Whether or not the Barbasol product is new and improved, do men really want to “shave like a man?”  My experience in personal care tells me that they while some men might want to be perceived as “tough” or “macho” as the result of a grooming routine, “shaving like a man” is not the actual shaving experience to which they aspire. That would be about comfort, pampering and not having your face cut to shreds. I can’t speak for all men, but I can tell you that I don’t want to think about shaving on the front lines of battle, freezing cold, with a dull straight razor that I’m dipping into cold, dank water that I’ve collected in my helmet.

3.     No Originality

Take a look at the spots on the Barbasol website. There are no compelling characters, messages or situations. There is no emotional or rational reason to use Barbasol.  The spots are not funny.  Rather than creating anything truly original or distinctive, it is clear that the campaign was derived directly but ineptly from the Old Spice playbook.

4.     All Things To All People

It’s rare that trying to be all things to all people ever works in the marketing world.  You’ve got to put a stake in the ground, like Old Spice did.  P&G and its agencies understood that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to fashion a message and brand personality that was relevant to a new generation of users while still appealing to aging consumers.

But Barbasol wants to have it both ways. And Stuart Elliott,  The New York Time Advertising columnist, gets it dead wrong when he declares that, “It is no coincidence that Brut, Old Spice and Barbasol are all venerable brands that want to sharpen their appeal to younger men while at the same time holding on to current customers.”

I’m not sure I’d call Barbasol “venerable.” It’s cheap and it’s always been cheap. More on that in a bit.  The larger point is that P&G was clearly not thinking about hanging on to older consumers of Old Spice with their new, irreverent, over the top, youth-inspired advertising. They did not look back or communicate anything that could be mistaken for “old” in any way shape or form. No great grandfathers, no old time pioneers, no World War II veterans.

What they did accomplish, however, was to retain the essence of Old Spice as “virile” and “masculine.” They simply updated those concepts for the 21st Century.

If you are really serious about changing attitudes and behaviors in such monumental ways, you can’t play it safe.  Solid Citizens in search of revival need to have the guts, the patience and the money to put stakes in the ground and be ready to stick it out over the long haul.

However, there is one hope for Barbasol. As mentioned earlier, it’s cheap. Very cheap. The Walgreen’s website offers Barbasol for $1.69 for a 10 oz. can while Foamy is $2.79 for 11 ounces and Edge Gel was $2.99 for 7 ounces.

Maybe a better tagline for the brand might be: “Barbasol. Today’s shave at World War II prices.” Perhaps unemployed, underemployed and value minded young men flock to the brand as a result.

But it’s probably safe to say that young men don’t want grooming advice from ancestors any more than they want iPhone tips from Luddites.



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