Mean Joe Greene & the Old Spice Manly-Man

Isaiah Mustafa in Old Spice ad Jian Ghomeshi’s Q on CBC is running with guest hosts during the summer, and the August 3rd show was hosted by Terry O’Reilly of Age of Persuasion fame. (listen online) The first 20 minutes are Terry’s exploration of the Old Spice campaign with Isaiah Mustafa that’s getting a lot of press after going viral and running a hugely successful real-time social media dialogue with their spokesperson.. Amid the interviews, Terry talks with the pair responsible for the creative on this project and considers how the campaign is out of character for parent company P&G — the whole segment is worth a listen.

Near the end, Terry poses the question whether the campaign has resulted in a sales increase for Old Spice, and I noted how the answer was artfully dodged. Indeed, there was some initial confusion over whether the numbers were actually up or down, with early reports indicating they were down 7%. This figure dates back to very early in the campaign though, with recent numbers showing a jump of 55%. Some of the stats are a little hard to navigate without proper context, but it does seem the campaign is working: sales are up 107% in the past month.

Nevertheless, the dodged question got me to thinking about the question I asked Terry O’Reilly not too long ago. He was in town and did a couple of speaking engagements, and after one of them I joined a small group around the podium that was asking him questions or having books signed. While he signed my copy of The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture, I asked him this question:

If you’d been in the room at the time, would you have pulled the Coke ad with Mean Joe Greene?

“No,” he answered. “I wouldn’t have.”
We discussed his answer a bit, along with Sergio Zyman’s rationale for pulling the ad when he did. (He also pulled the “I’d like to teach the world to sing” ad, and for the same reason.) In his 1999 book, The End of Marketing as We Know It, Zyman wrote,

Why would Coke do that? Why would it take a popular award-winning commercial that cost millions to product and pull it off the air? The answer is simple. I know, I did it.

My job as a marketer for The Coca-Cola Company was to get people out of their houses and into restaurants and stores to buy more Coca-Cola products — and the ad just wasn’t doing that.

Seth Godin also cites this incident in Purple Cow as he makes the case that “awareness is not the point.” The point for Zyman and Godin is that the goal is increased sales. So if the ad doesn’t sell more Coke, kill it.

Terry O’Reilly made a good point in our conversation, though. The fact that we’re still talking about that ad all these years later means something was happening with it. While I don’t dismiss Zyman’s point, I tend to agree — there was something effective about the ad, even if it didn’t move the sales meter in the short term. The ad affected the way people perceive the Coca-Cola brand, and to this day there’s a lingering effect from those ads. Maybe it wasn’t exactly what Coke needed at the time, but I would argue it was still effective. (At the time, Coke was losing market share to Pepsi, and needed not just to stop losing, but gain back what they’d lost.)

So whether or not sales of Old Spice transformed overnight, I have to call the campaign a huge success for changing the way people perceive the Old Spice brand. And that is what the brand has been needing. Change the way people perceive and respond to the brand, and you’ll be winning long-term customers. I suspect that for some, the results might not be apparent to the sales department in the short term, but over the long haul the sales numbers should still show a solid increase over time.

I don’t know… did Zyman get it right or wrong? Maybe this is a kind of Ginger-or-Maryanne question for marketers. I can see the merit of both sides. Perhaps it’s just a matter of timing, and getting the right campaign in the right season. Even brilliant creative can be wasted in the wrong season. But I don’t think that Coke’s creative was wasted — and the Old Spice campaign is certain to get a good ROI.