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Call To Arms

by Contagious I/O
This story originally appeared on Contagious I/O, our customisable research platform featuring the world’s most creative, ingenious and effective brand-funded ideas

Contagious interviews David Kolbusz, deputy ECD at BBH London, about AXE’s strategic shift

Unilever-owned body spray AXE is inviting people to ‘make love not war’ to promote its new variant, AXE Peace. A 60-second film, directed by Rupert Sanders via production company MJZ, echoes both real life tensions (North Korea, Vietnam, Libya, Tiananmen Square) and juxtaposes them with cinematic references (the grim districts in The Hunger Games, the epic Asian landscapes in Apocalypse Now, the wrecked Warsaw in The Pianist). But tension dissipates as soon as love prevails. The film, uploaded to YouTube on 14 January, has already attracted more than 3.3 million views.

The film kicks off a year of peace-related activity for AXE. It has forged a partnership with non-profit Peace One Day, which invites people to participate in ‘simple, yet powerful, acts of love and peace’ via AXE’s Facebook page (currently at 4.2 million Likes). Peace One Day focuses on 21 September as a ‘day of peace’ and is leveraging AXE’s brand strength in ‘bringing people together’ in hoping to make this year’s Peace Day the most effective ever.

AXE Peace will run in more than 50 countries throughout 2014 and is designed to empower AXE’s male target to improve the world. A message on the Peace One Day site elaborates: ‘This could be anything from raising money, donating time to good causes or being more positive towards the people around them.’ One example cited on the video below is a blood donation programme in Australia, executed with a local charity. Jeremy Gilley, the founder of Peace One Day, also promises lots of activity in Brazil, the World Cup host nation in 2014.

We interviewed David Kolbusz, deputy ECD at BBH London, to find out more about the strategy behind AXE Peace and what it hopes to achieve.

We’ve seen the ad and the film about the partnership. Can you tell us what’s coming next for AXE Peace?

In the Peace One Day video (above), there are details about some of the activation taking place in other parts of the world, such as the blood drive in Australia. Every year we create a new variant with AXE. Last year was Apollo and the space mission, this year it’s Peace. We develop the variants with Unilever.

Is AXE Peace all about the brand finding its higher purpose?

That was definitely at the forefront of our creative thinking. Unilever has always leaned towards doing good, especially in the last decade. Altrusim does seem to be the order of the day, which is a wonderful thing. It wasn’t the Unilever mandate; it was an initiative we took upon ourselves. We had the initial idea and Unilever got excited about it and we developed it in partnership.

How did you choose to partner with Peace One Day?
We spoke to Jeremy Gilley early on to run the campaign past him. Having worked with Unilever before, he thought it made sense because their message is all about awareness. Peace One Day’s platform is all about as many young people as possible, making as many young people as possible aware of peace; 21 September is a representation of what could be possible if everybody was to put down their guns.

Is this a bit of a jolt in terms of brand strategy for AXE?

I’ve been working on AXE for three years now and every time we create a piece of work we make a move towards being more sophisticated and having a more mature tone of voice. The headline reaction is always that this isn’t like anything AXE has done before and then people go back to thinking about AXE as like Zoo or Nuts [magazines] because that’s engrained in people’s lives. But we haven’t been making stuff like that for a while. Apollo was silly but it wasn’t gratuitous. The lifeguard and the fireman were stunning examples of masculinity and for a long time, AXE never featured attractive guys in their ads. AXE Peace is the most radical but it’s not as much of a shift as most people think. Even some of the most conventional ads we’ve done had an underlying sweetness (for example ‘Getting Dressed’.)

So AXE becomes more about love rather than sex?

Absolutely. The past three years have been all about moving towards a more premium aesthetic and this latest push towards love rather than lust was a conscious decision by AXE. In the case of Peace, the reason it feels radical is because all our efforts to make the brand a bit more grown up have been underpinned by this altruistic platform.

Is this strategy about hanging onto users of AXE?

The goal is definitely to hang onto users. The concept of drop-off is a terrifying one because you keep having to start afresh with the next generation. But recently, it’s about holding onto those consumers; the entry point target is growing up a lot faster. Young men today don’t really have the same values as a generation ago and there’s a lot more equilibrium between the sexes. Guys and girls hang out a lot more together as units and in clusters rather than tribes. We don’t see school dances anymore where they sit the girls against on one wall and the boys on the other. A conscious part of our strategic conversations here for the past few years has also been that women are less interested in shallow men.

You can say you stand for something but that can be a little bit hollow. Action is what makes it different

– David Kolbusz, deputy ECD, BBH London

Is it evolution or revolution?

I think it’s an evolution but I can see how it would seem like revolution to some. I’m living with the work day today. To an outsider, it might feel like a much bigger shift, but three years of working are a drop in the ocean compared with the 15 years of bikini clad girls chasing guys who spray themselves with AXE. When a brand has built up a certain equity for so long, three years of sophisticated, premium advertising doesn’t necessarily change people’s perceptions. We’re doing more grown up stuff but this is the first one that’s getting talked about on a grand scale.

As more brands aim to be purpose-led, how can AXE stand out?
Everyone wants to do a little bit of good and that seems to be the starting point for a lot of brand conversations with consumers. Brands can start out doing what we’ve tried to do: put your money where your mouth is and turn thought into action. All 50 of these markets are doing wonderful things and all of those markets are getting budgets to promote peace and to me that’s pretty significant. You can say you stand for something but then it’s a little bit hollow, action is what makes it different. We want as many guys as possible to get involved and also aim to pick up new fans along the way.

Is Peace about relationships rather than the thrill of the chase?

Exactly. There’s a lot more glory in relationships and you realise that as you get a little bit older…

Contagious Insight

AXE + purpose: the concept divided the Contagious office as we heatedly debated whether it even counted as purpose in the no-nonsense way of brands in the Unilever stable, for instance Lifebuoy and its health hygiene programme designed to help children reach their fifth birthday. This is partly because of AXE’s modus operandi: it launches a new variant every year. Of course, it’s too early to speculate what will happen in 2015 but if and when a new variant replaces AXE Peace, will its peaceful intentions fall by the wayside? When brands affiliate themselves to a particular purpose or cause, the intention needs to be long-term, or grand statements such as ‘make love not war’ risk looking tokenistic.

Having said that, AXE is trying to expand its target audience and it deserves credit for trying to not just go beyond the obvious but to loftily stake its brand to promoting peace. Having grown up on a steady diet of ads where boy next door gets stunning girl, generations of teenage boys have liberally doused themselves with the product in an attempt to attract girls. The only trouble with this strategy is, as David Kolbusz points out, that the brand drop-off is painful.

What 20-something man wants to continue using a product with that kind of image when they’re in a steady relationship or even living with their girlfriend for the first time? By making a film that’s more cinematic and romantic and by being associated with good deeds, such as the blood drive in Australia, this is surely going to give them much more pulling power with the opposite sex. Women find it hard to resist men who do good deeds, a strategy deployed by similarly blokey beer brand Norte with its Best Excuse Ever campaign.

Kolbusz’s comments about how values have changed is also interesting. Unilever is forever batting off criticisms about how it can square promoting women’s self-esteem with Dove, particularly with a view to images in media and advertising, while featuring busty babes in AXE ads. With more young women embracing feminism and more brands seeking to empower women (here’s looking at you, Baileys, the sponsor of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and Pantene) the traditional tone of the AXE ads is jarring. Whether or not Peace is the answer remains to be seen, but we’re at least giving it a chance…

This story originally appeared on Contagious I/O. Contagious I/O is our bespoke trends, inspiration, insight and analysis service, providing daily innovative marketing intelligence across a comprehensive range of sectors to brands and agencies across the world. For more information about Contagious I/O contact