The Gillette Advertising Fiasco: Paying for Competitor’s Brands Popularity?

If you have not heard by now, razor manufacturer Gillette recently found itself in hot waters after releasing a highly controversial commercial (see it on YouTube) which has generated a host of negative responses on various social media, news outlets and blogs, as well as calls for boycott. Despite being released only about 2 weeks ago (Jan 13, 2019) the ad dubbed “the toxic masculinity commercial” managed to gather the astounding 1.3 million downvotes versus 740k upvotes on YouTube amidst cries from users that their comments and downvotes are being deleted. The industry is already speculating that this is shaping to be a disaster which will go in the textbooks.

Where are the numbers?

Despite this, there is little data available to outsiders to assess the outcome of the campaign for Gillette at this early stage. Maybe it would turn out to be an example of how there is no bad advertising and a case which proves one can gain from an ad even when they anger a significant percentage of the people they reach with it.

Looking to confirm or refute this some have turned to the stock price of P&G, the company owning the Gillette brand since 2005. However, this is a bad source for such information since P&G is a huge corporation with Gillette contributing to just a part of its revenue: 10% of net sales and 14% of net earnings according to the company’s 2018 annual report. Furthermore, stock prices factor in investor expectations which might or might not turn out to be justified.

The Gillette team likely has access to media and social media tracking data, showing number of mentions and sentiment of the different publications that contain brand mentions, however it is a no go for us as we don’t have such data.

What would really help is if we have some sales and revenue numbers for both Gillette and other razor manufacturers, but such numbers are not generally available, especially so soon after the launch of the commercial.

Luckily, even without media mentions or revenue data, there are numbers which can help us predict the likely effect:

Search volume data for Gillette and “razors” in general

There is a cool free tool called Google Trends which can display the relative search volume for any word or phrase (technically: “keyword”) one is interested in covering long periods of time going back as far as 2004. The data is updated with a delay of just a couple of days so we can now examine the search volumes of keywords for the week the ad was launched in: Jan 13 — Jan 19, 2019. The volume is presented on a relative scale ranging from 0 to 100 where the 100 level corresponds to the highest number of searches seen during the specified period.

Here is the volume of searches over time for the “Gillette” keyword over the past 5 years:

search volume for “gillette” on Google

The “Gillette” brand is in more demand on the Google search engine than ever before! Has the commercial worked in bringing attention to the Gillette brand? The approximately 6.5 times increase in the number of searches surely says “Yes”.

However, we still have not answered the question if this is the good kind of attention, the kind which usually brings in the money, or the bad kind: the one that can make a company fade away into inexistence.

In trying to answer that, we can recruit some more data. For example, if searches for “razors” have also increased, this might suggest an issue for Gillette since people using such broad terms are usually not yet set on a brand or are considering alternatives.

search volume for “razors” on Google

While the increase is not overwhelming, a 66% increase in just over a week is a very significant increase given the relatively stable volumes in the past 5 years. Remember, these are people looking for razors without a particular brand in mind, therefore this increase is likely playing against the Gillette brand.

However, the question whose answer will really show how good or bad the ad is:

Did searches for competitor brands go up following the Gillette ad?

The answer is a resounding yes, which should be bringing chills down the spines of Gillette’s executives since it not only means that they wasted all this money to produce and air the commercial without getting a net benefit, not only is this shaping up to be a PR disaster, but they appear to be losing business to competitors at the same time. Just look at these graphs:

Harry’s (U.S. Brand)

search volume for “harrys razors” on Google

First, we have Harry’s — a fairly new razor brand. While its graph has wild swings over time probably driven by its own commercials, absent a recent ad campaign from the company it’s most likely the increase in search volume for “harrys razors” between Jan 13 and Jan 19, 2019 is due to their competitor’s fiasco. The increase is roughly 1.5 times relative to the previous 6 months average.

Dollar Shave Club (U.S. Brand)

search volume for “dollar shave club” on Google

Next, we have the Dollar Shave Club brand which sees a spike of about 2.5 times over its average across the past 2.5 years which were remarkably flat for the company (keyword “dollar shave club”).

BIC (U.S. brand)

search volume for “bic razors” on Google

Third, the change in search volume for the BIC brand (keyword “bic razors”) is equal to almost 3-fold increase in search volume for their brand following the Gillette commercial.

Wilkinson Sword (U.K. brand)

search volume for “wilkinson sword” on Google

Finally, checking out the U.K. market and one of the main competitors there: Wilkinson Sword. The graph shows about a 1.5-fold increase in the number of searches over the average across the past 5 years (keyword “wilkinson sword”). Surely any company will be happy with such an increase in buyers’ interest, especially if a competitor is paying for it.

While all search volumes reflect international trends, since some of these brands are only advertised and sold in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, these spikes mostly reflect the effect in these markets, but it is not unreasonable to guess that similar results would be seen for other regional competitors where the ad gains interest.

Lessons for advertising executives?

The picture painted above is clear: Gillette has spent unknown millions of dollars to produce and spread a message which is actively hurting its brand while driving people who have never considered other brands searching for their competitors. The above evidence shows that, in a sense, Gillette is paying to increase their competitors’ brand popularity.

Hopefully this can serve as a lesson for marketers and executives on how not to court your customers. Other than marketing and PR textbooks, I believe this event should make it into the risk-management literature since there must have been something really wrong at company headquarters for them to take such a risky move: Gillette, being the market leader with 65% global share (source) in the grooming industry according to its own 2018 annual report has so much to lose and so little to gain by engaging in such a campaign.

About the author:

Georgi Georgiev is an experienced data analyst and statistician working primarily in online marketing and online user testing. He is a frequent lecturer on industry events and hosts seminars and courses on web analytics and statistics. His projects include Analytics-Toolkit.com: productivity software for web analysts as well as GIGAcalculator.com, a multi-purpose computing resource.

P.S. Since writing this piece, Gillette’s Chief Financial Officer Jon Moeller came out with a statement saying sales “Retail sales trends are in line with pre-campaign levels” which for me is actually a confirmation of my story. The media attention and many times increase in search volume are, predictably, not affecting sales in the short run. The fact that retail sales currently are “in line with pre-campaign levels” has no bearing on the effect of the ads as it is a lagging indicator. The effect which will be experienced in the next 1–2 years — I’ll be checking P&G’s yearly report with interest.

An anecdotal explanation of the above: if a Gillette customer switches to a competitor now or in the next weeks or months, the competitor would generate more revenue immediately, but it will take time for Gillette to register that this customer is not buying replacement heads or new razors from them.