Old Spice Revisited: Lessons and Cautions for Small Business

Old Spice Revisited: Lessons and Cautions for Small BusinessLook at your brand. . . now back at me.  Now back to your brand. . . now back to me. Sadly, I’m going to tell you what you don’t want to hear about the Old Spice campaign.

Old Spice gave us a campaign that was equal parts entertainment, traditional television advertising and YouTube social media magic. But when the sales numbers started trickling in, something was amiss. Namely, sales. What ensued was a firestorm in the blogosphere with sharply divided camps fighting a holy war of mostly unsupported opinion.

When new data points started emerging, they provided the careful student of business a few nuggets to keep in mind for the future, when we’ll be spending our money and looking for real results. Here’s what I saw:

Problem 1: Where’s the beef?

First, the data suggests that campaign itself didn’t move the sales needle. For the first six months of the television media flight, Old Spice sales were first reported to be down 7 percent year over year, then flat in terms of share growth. Then, when the brand’s celebrated customized YouTube video campaign broke, sales hockey-sticked upwards, with sell-through increasing 106 percent. Upon further review, this big and much celebrated uptick coincided with an avalanche of buy-one-get-one-free coupons. 

What this means:

Of particular concern was the groundless optimism that many commenters on my blog post seemed to be clinging to. They just knew things would turn out all right because… because… they just had to! The campaign was so funny! It’s dangerous to convince yourself you’re doing the right thing simply because you love doing what you just did.  We need to keep our eyes open and our judgment as objective as the human condition allows.

No school like the old school? Possibly so. The coupon avalanche seemed to convince a temporary mob of people to try Old Spice. Would the coupons have worked without the ads and the viral social media campaign? Don’t know. Would the viral social media campaign have moved the needle without the coupons? The data suggests no. The ads alone certainly didn’t.

Let’s agree that activation and conversion are your goals as a business owner. Get people to buy more stuff, in short. Everything you do must be pointed at integration, at tactical face-to-face, in-the-store or on-your-site conversion. There’s no such thing as “buzz.” There’s sales and there’s money down the drain.

Problem 2: All the hammers think you’re a nail.

Second, it seems anyone who has never managed a P&L or met payroll thinks Old Spice was the greatest campaign the world has ever seen. And that person is probably pitching you their agency’s services right now.  Listen to the venom in roughly half of the comments coming from digital agency types. This is a red flag.

What this means:

There’s an undercurrent that thinks marketing – and advertising, and particularly video designed for the Web – is all about entertainment. It isn’t. Advertising is supposed to sell stuff. And when your agency types come in the door breathlessly telling you they got a billion views on YouTube but look positively insulted when you ask if it had a positive ROI (gasp!), you need to wonder – assuming that your marketing dollars are finite and you care about making the company money – if you’re with the right people.

Preconceptions are dangerous, especially when it’s their preconceptions and your money. Demand facts, not feelings.

Problem 3: They score, but you lose.

Third, the biggest winner seems to be Old Spice’s advertising agency, which pocketed the coveted Film Grand Prix at Cannes for the campaign.

What this means:

This may be a personal bias, but any time the clear winner isn’t you – meaning the paying customer – there’s a problem.

When asked at Cannes whether the campaign was a success for Old Spice, the brand representatives gave a “no comment.” For good reason, apparently. Later, after some much-needed media training, we were told that the brand was “thrilled” with its results and couldn’t be happier. This doesn’t inspire confidence.

The post-mortem:

There’s nothing wrong with spending money on video aimed at viral success. Go ahead. It might work. And there are many, many people who will tell you how to go down this path. But the real point of spending money at all in business is to get more business, so ensure – regardless of what you’re promised – that everything you do is pointed towards converting that casual viewer into a buyer.

The secret of many successful advertising campaigns is that they can be leveraged in-store or online. Look at the Pepsi Challenge. It wasn’t just a brilliant campaign – every time a consumer walked into the store and saw those two pallets next to each other, the ad replayed in their heads – but the fact that it was running the campaign at all gave Pepsi the opportunity to convince those retail buyers to stack its pallets next to King Coke. Advertising drives merchandising, and merchandising drives sales. Especially when it’s paired with advertising.

Am I being unfair to the Old Spice brand and the agency? No, not really. The campaign ran for six months, and the brand experienced a 7 percent volume decline, with a spike driven by coupons. It lagged many of its competitors in the category. And yet, the campaign is held up as a paragon of marketing genius. Careful there; that’s dangerous talk.

Let’s learn from this “case study” – the good, the bad and the hopelessly overblown – and use it as a cautionary tale to grow our own success stories.


Stephen Denny Stephen Denny is a competitive strategy and marketing consultant, speaker and author. His book, Killing Giants: 10 Strategies to Topple the Goliath In Your Industry is now available. You can follow Steve online at Stephen Denny, where he blogs about strategy, marketing and big ideas.

22 Reactions
  1. While your article is correct, it seems undermined by a faulty example. The Old Spice ad campaign was a success.


    From the article: “Over the past three months, sales jumped 55 percent and in the past month, they rose 107 percent, also per Nielsen.”

    Are you working with other data?

  2. Me thinks the problem is you are NOT looking at how advertising is effective.. you are looking for instant conversions..

    I might buy Old Spice bodywash.. but i haven’t been shopping for bodywash since the campaign.. i am about to run out… you are nOT taking this into account.

  3. DJ – thanks for your note! Take a look at the underpinnings of the jump, per the Ad Age article linked to in my post – the six months of media produced little and the jump in sell-through coincided with the coupon drop. That’s something to think about – and is really what the careful marketer needs to take away here.

    Steve: six months isn’t ‘instant.’ Look at the data and draw your own conclusions. All the zillions of views didn’t move the needle until the brand started giving the stuff away. For a student of social media (or marketing, or business) this is a big red flag. Thanks!

  4. Why is it that companies can spend millions of dollars on TV ads and not have to be held accountable for direct sales but when a branding campaign happens online it should be directly measurable?

  5. Being a direct marketer, when I saw the ads my first reaction was, “WOW!” My second was, where’s the call to action? And did the sales go up?

    800,000,0000 people saw my ad is useless. 80,000 more people bought my product and CONTINUE to buy my product… priceless.

    (Mixing my ad metaphors here, but you get the idea).

  6. Jill + Jodi: Amen to both of your thoughts. Ads need to drive sales, if not today then certainly tomorrow. These ads got people chuckling but it took an avalanche of buy-one-get-one free coupons to drive the sell-through. Was this entire campaign a failure? Don’t know. Was the ad campaign worth it? I doubt it. Was the coupon drop effective? Somewhat – but compare it to the other coupon drops in the category per the Ad Age article and you see other brands with bigger increases that didn’t invest the millions on the creative and media buys. Now you begin to wonder, as a small business player, what would be in *your* best interests if it was your money?

    Smart investments with observable payouts usually win the hearts, minds and budgets of business owners who really need their investments to bear financial fruit!

  7. Since I saw this more as a branding campaign than a sales campaign, I’m still going to wait to draw my final conclusions. In particular I want to know if this either increased brand awareness or changed perceptions of Old Spice from that brand grandpa used to buy to something one of us might buy. Then I’d like to see if that has a long-term impact on buying. So I’m willing to give it more time.

    That said my key take-away from your post is that our campaigns must align with our goals, whether those goals be brand awareness, sales or whatever. It is really easy to be impressed by cool humorous ads or shiny interactive Web pages. But looking cool and winning awards doesn’t matter a bit if we don’t achieve results. To that end we must establish measurable goals from the start, then examine the relevant data as the results come in. People so often get distracted by happy numbers, like increased traffic, that they don’t pay attention to more important factors such as conversions, repeat visits, bounce rates, etc.

  8. Regardless of the results of this specific campaign, what you’re really saying is that advertising should motivate targets to think, do or feel something about your product. Its about a result.

    As Ogilvy said… all too often advertising “worships at the false alter of creativity.”

  9. Great analysis. Like most people, I loved the Old Spice ads… but the whole time I’ve been wondering, “Is it paying off?”

    My favorite line from your article: “There’s no such thing as ‘buzz.’ There’s sales and there’s money down the drain.”


  10. Heidi, Chris and Ryan: yes, yes and yes.

    Heidi, many thanks for your thoughtful comment. Yes, campaigns must always align with goals, but I have yet to meet a CEO (and I sure never worked for one) who’s first goal for the usually fairly large chunk of budget marked, “advertising>creative + media spend”, wasn’t ROI. And that’s the thing. It’s hard to look at a campaign and definitively say, “ah, that won’t sell anything,” or vice versa. Testing helps, alignment with some form of activation is critical, and yet sometimes everything fails to win the consumer. And sometimes, everything you do works great – just look at Dos Equis and “The World’s Most Interesting Man.”

    Chris and Ryan – per my comment above, yes, at the end of the day it’s about whether your campaign sold more soap or cars or domains or fish sticks. The chuckles are nice, but they won’t save you.

    Thanks all!

  11. I don’t know, Stephen. Everywhere I turn (or click) I find statistics telling me the effort did, in fact, generate strong sales. I do get your point about the six-month figures, but these citations look at much smaller windows, including a single month:

    From Wired’s Epicenter blog:

    Sales of Old Spice body wash more than doubled earlier this summer, coinciding with the rise in popularity of its social-media-friendly online ad campaign in which be-toweled former NFL wide receiver Isaiah Mustafa answered specific viewers

  12. Shel: thanks for your note – no question that as a brand manager, it’s a good day at the office when your brand spikes 106% in a 30 day period YOY. If I’m not mistaken, this hockey stick correlated to both the social media boom and the BOGO coupon drop. The six month number is telling. We can all agree that the numbers went up – IRI and ACN are telling us varying accounts of this – my interest (purely as a marketer – they aren’t a client, nor do I have insider’s knowledge other than what I’ve read from Brandweek, Brand Channel and Ad Age) is the causality.

    I really want to believe. I want to believe that clever, witty viral videos knock sell-through through the rooves of retailers everywhere. It’s just that every time I dig a little deeper, the numbers tell me otherwise. I’m wondering if this isn’t the case here with Old Spice.

    More importantl, for a small business audience, this is a dangerous road to take. It’s seductive – look what a video can do in terms of exposure! – but spending money on a long shot with a dubious record of ROI is tough when the money needs to count. SMB’s and bootstrapping start-ups don’t have the luxury that P&G does here.

    Sorry – long copy here – appreciate your note!

  13. Shel, you make an interesting point. The Old Spice ad seemed to raise visibility/sales for ALL body washes. Sometimes that is the best end result, with a hope that Suzie Q. Public buys yours. A point well made many years ago by Hank Seiden in Advertising Pure and Simple when he talked about marketing fruit roll-ups.

  14. Wow, great discussion. We should keep this up and create a new post out of the opinions, findings, ideas! Clearly sparked something that people are passionate about, Stephen.

  15. Thanks, TJ – the gold is always in the comments!

  16. Here is an interesting write up about the progress of Old Spice campign including the recent online campaign.


  17. There are a lot of factors that can affect the sales. Let us not solely relate it to the current TVC that’s airing as it’s contribution is just a fraction. We should also look at the objective of the material. If the objective is to create awareness for the brand, then sales should not be the measure of effectiveness. It can be measured with a qualitative study on whether or not there is recall. Remember the consumer’s behavior – awareness, interest, desire, action (AIDA). One must be first aware of the product. Getting much information can build interest, which will eventually turn into a desire to try the product, then act on buying it. This is I guess one of the common mistakes of advertisers who are not trained to understand such; they’re always after the conversion.

  18. Kerstine:

    Thanks for your note. Looking through a small business “lens” – and coming from a Global 500 background – any advertising that fails to move the needle needs addressing. The word that sticks out in your comment is “eventually,” which often never comes.

    If you have the luxury of running multi-million dollar media flights (not to mention having a multi-million dollar creative budget) aimed only at “increasing awareness” – and with having no accountability to impact the brand’s financial metrics – then you’re in great shape. For the moment. I haven’t met many of these people yet. Advertising needs to sell stuff – if not right now, then pretty soon. And a six month lag won’t win many fans in the board room.


  19. All:

    New data points published by Ad Age today hit the nail on the head: now that the buy-one-get-one-free coupons have ended, sell-through has dropped 30%. Link here: http://adage.com/article?article_id=145569 (“Isaiah Mustafa and Social Media Prove No Match for Free Goods”).


  20. I have a couple of thoughts. One is maybe the aim wasn’t sales. Old Spice is what people once equated with their grand-dads and soap-on-a-roap Christmas gifts they gave as a child. The ads changed that perception…turned it into a fun and sexy brand with “swagger” which may have got people (like me) curious about the body wash…which may have induced them to SMELL it the next time they went to Target. I BET if you could monitor that, you would see that the ad was tremendously successful in getting people to curiously sniff the stuff when they were shopping. I know I did! I fully intended to buy it for my son and my boyfriend…I sniffed…

    And there was the problem. In my unscientific opinion, it wasn’t that the ads didn’t work. The bodywash just does not smell that good. Or maybe to a woman, it doesn’t smell that good. I smelled all of them and they smell REALLY strong in an off-putting way. Again, I am a sample of one, but I’ve smelled men’s body wash I liked, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy Old Spice as much as I wanted to. And I just wondered if that affected sales — they couldn’t deliver on the promise.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the ads, or the packaging. It’s the product that needs to change.

  21. I really agree with the concept behind this article. It is important to get customers to think while viewing an advertisement. However, overall I think advertising is about spreading happiness. Whatever brings the custoemr joy or converys how the project will make the customers life easier enough to get them intrigued to find out more is what its all about. I love being in an industry devoted to spreading happiness.