Three reasons why Axe succeeds where Pepsi and Heineken Failed

Audience, Audience, Audience.

Hot off the back of the back-to-back backlashes to Pepsi and Heineken’s poorly-received attempts at purpose-driven ad campaigns, this newly launched effort by Axe and their agency 72andSunny serves to demonstrate what campaigns with purpose can look like when done well.

Three key things come to mind when considering exactly what they’ve done differently to avoid the same mis-steps;

1: Taking a challenging position on something your customers really give a shit about.

The tension felt by young men between fitting in and being themselves is a real concern for guys of a certain age, and most of what they see in mass and social media is about selecting popularity as your life KPI.

The position Axe has taken is a refreshing antidote to the orthodoxy. It releases a tension between their customers and the world, which makes it a great purpose for a brand to advocate for.

Compare this to Pepsi’s message that, what, Protest is important? or Oppression is bad? Or Heineken’s bold view that we shouldn’t be racist, sexist or transphobic? You can hopefully see how these positions are relatively unconvincing.

Those issues still exist of course but the debates are tired. Everyone has a position on them and any opposition the brands are rallying against are a marginalised minority, at least in the audience’s minds. As a result these brands don’t come across as trying to change anything for the better; They are too obviously trying to leverage your opinions to sell you things.

Axe are trying to sell things too of course, but by actually providing value to the customers first, so that they feel emotionally connected to the brand and are more comfortable to spend a few quid on an aerosol.

2: Crafting the execution to appeal to the Audience, not the CMO.

Many very talented people were clearly involved in both productions but both the Heineken and Pepsi spots feel like they were cast, lit, directed and edited by a committee of suited businessmen. This a common result of too little time, too little budget and too much feedback.

The Axe ad on the other hand has a bit of style, an edge, some soul — whatever you want to call the application of artistic sensibilities to cut through and connect. If you create something the audience actually like, it’s just another way of building emotional connection and showing you understand.

It’s a great demonstration of why smart marketers get angry when anyone refers to production costs as ‘non-working’ budget.

3: Evolve, don’t revolve.

In fiction and real life we naturally reject characters who have no consistency and suddenly transform personalities. They seem false and draw out cynicism.

The world of brands is no different. Credibility comes from progress while maintaining some connection back to prior versions of yourself. Where it’s fine for Axe to move on from the nineties vision of lads getting laid into a more modern, grown up perspective, Brands like Heineken and Pepsi, after decades of (sometimes brilliant) trivial populism suddenly taking the moral high ground is hard to swallow — Especially when it is done to appeal to everyone by challenging no-one and changing nothing.

In conclusion

Pursuing a brand purpose is a massively impactful way to deliver an exchange of value that encourages your customers to pay attention to what you are saying, build mental availability of your brand and be more likely to buy your products - but for this to work there has to be genuine value in what you are attempting to do in the eyes of your potential buyers. It’s not enough to pretend to hold the same values. If it doesn’t feel real, or like there’s no genuine attempt to make a difference, it encourages negative associations and reactions that arguably do worse than nothing.

Now, who else is thirsty?