Gillette the latest brand to succumb to the “marketer’s fallacy”

If you’re reading this, two things can be assumed:

  1. You have seen the new Gillette ad
  2. You have an opinion on the new Gillette ad

Now, for our purposes here what that opinion is doesn’t matter.  Don’t worry, this piece is strictly about strategy, not politics.  All that matters is the one thing we can certainly agree on, namely that it’s proved to be quite polarising. Nothing wrong with that of course. Given that the first responsibility of an ad is to be noticed, it’s actually a pretty good play. And yet the general consensus seems to be that this particular play, in spite of the considerable noise it’s generating, isn’t going to work out well for Gillette. Not, it should be stressed, because of the rights or wrongs of the ad’s actual content. No, the mistake is something far more basic: the marketer’s fallacy.

The fallacy goes something like this:

Say you observe the broad market for your company, and you notice that you seem to do particularly well with person type A, and particularly poorly with person type B. What should you do?

Option 1 – Intensify your marketing towards person type A, with the aim of driving ever greater penetration and depth with that part of the market, whilst ignoring or even alienating person type B.


Option 2 – Take person type A for granted (they’re already in the bag), and make a concerted push to bring person type B on board, thus broadening your market share.

The fallacy is option 2. It seems to make sense on the face of it – after all, type B represents huge untapped potential, and if they were onboard would double the size of your business overnight. But it’s a fantasy. If your brand is rejected by a certain group of people, it will likely be for a more fundamental reason (e.g. product etc.) than an ad can overcome, and even if you did overcome it, it would probably be at the expense of those who do buy your schtick. It’s the classic “you can’t be all things to all people unless you choose to be utterly bland and neutral” dilemma.

Without naming names, I’ve seen many businesses over the years who fell for this fallacy, and the failure rate was always 100%. The best case scenario is that nobody notices or cares what you’re saying in your ads, and so your market dynamics don’t change meaningfully. The worst is that your new target (type B) applauds your marketing, but doesn’t convert for the fundamental reasons they weren’t buying in the first place, whilst your core customer (type A) gets pissed off for being ignored / alienated and takes their business elsewhere.

Currently it’s looking like Gillette are going to fall victim to that worst case scenario. We can predict this thanks to Glocalities data publicised by Mark Ritson.

First, a touch of context. Few industries have been more disrupted in recent years than shaving, thanks primarily to the emergence of Dollar Shave Club, and latterly, Harry’s. Their explicit undermining of Gillette’s position with vastly-cheaper-supposedly-better-quality blades, has seen the P&G giant start to be hollowed out from underneath, particularly when it comes to a younger, more metropolitan audience. This doesn’t mean Gillette are finished by any means – they still dominate the market by some distance – but it does mean they are proving more successful with some audiences than others.

The Glocalities data, drawn from 5,000 Gillette consumers across 14 countries suggests that these Gillette-friendly audiences tend to be part of the “Achievers” or “Conservative” segments, whilst where they underperform is with “Challengers” and “Socilaizers” – the precise audiences, as Ritson observed, “open to a critique of ‘toxic masculinity’”. Further to this he added:

When you look at what societal issues stir Gillette consumers versus average consumers, gender equality lands dead last. Existing Gillette consumers are far less inspired by the message of the ad. Hence the negative responses on social media from Gillette users / former users and the generally positive comments from others.

The upshot of this, contrary to what we an assume were Gillette’s expectations, will not be indifference from their core audience, and a massive conversion from the audience with which they underperform. It will instead be derision from their core, and praise but not conversion from the others. Anyone who switched away from Gillette in the past few years had their reasons for doing so (be they cost, quality, delivery mechanism, or anti-corporatism); all things more fundamental than advertising, and things this campaign does nothing to address. Liking a brand’s ad is not synonymous with purchase – that requires a basic openness to the brand / product as a bedrock, with a great ad being the cherry on the cake.

Not that it would have ever happened, but if Gillette had wanted to do a polarising, politically charged ad that would have been successful from a sales perspective, then their content should have been precisely the opposite; a celebration of the unreconstructed male. Just like now they would have received generous helpings of both praise and criticism, only the people praising them would have been realistic potential customers (“Achievers” and “Conservatives”), whilst those criticising them would have been people who’d never buy Gillette in the first place (“Challengers” and “Socializers”). This “anti-fallacy” approach to controversy is of course that employed by exercise supplements brand Protein World with their “Beach Body Ready” campaign (one of the most commercially successful pieces of work of the decade), and by Nike with their Colin Kaepernick work. In both cases the brands “preached to the choir”, and the criticism they received only served to deepen and intensify the affection of those actually prepared to open their wallets.

Marketing, generally speaking, is a far more effective tool for reinforcing a brand’s position than moving it, or even creating it (that largely happens organically). The most celebrated marketers (Nike, Apple, Red Bull, etc.) all share the habit of having consistently and relentlessly burrowed deeper and deeper into their respective grooves, all the while ignoring (or even often antagonising) those outside it. If a brand can’t get their head around this, and instead indulge the dangerous fantasy of using advertising for market-share “raids” into spaces where others are far better equipped, then they’ll get the results their hubris, naivety, and greed deserve.

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