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Is axe a model for the rest of unilever?

February 19, 2005

Since the recent Procter acquisition of Gillette, eyes have been focused on Unilever. Analysts see Unilever as the big loser that got its strategy wrong. Analysts fault Unilever’s senior management for poor performance and anemic returns.

However, in the vast Unilever portfolio, one of several bright spots is the performance of Axe deodorant in the United States. This brand has gone from $0 to $150 million in sales in just a few years.

Under various guises, the Axe brand has been a tremendous success globally for Unilever, however skeptics were doubtful about North America. They wondered whether any brand could persuade adolescent American males can to spray their bodies with a perfume-like substance.

After tweaks, changes and adaptations from the European strategy, the advertising is now hitting its stride. Influx recently spotted an Axe outdoor ad, just a shot of just an open refrigerator full of whipped cream.

Much of the success of this brand is due to the Axe management team breaking away on their own, as an autonomous unit outside Unilever bureaucracy. They were given the chance to prove themselves, to use intuition and make their own decisions. This stealth-like unit proved it could respond smarter and faster on its own, than as part of Unilever’s departmental structure.

Perhaps there are lessons here for Unilever, and we will see more Axe like units, as the company tries to inspire executives to take more risks and go for growth.

The irony of the story is that now Unilever’s “star” brand Axe, will come face to face with the newly charged powerhouse in the male toiletries business, Procter’s Gillette.

Let the battle commence.

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