Sex Still Sells for Unilever’s Axe…But for How Long?

Multinational consumer-goods conglomerate Unilever all but created the body spray market with its Axe line, which is still dominant today. The male grooming product is positioned somewhere between deodorant and cologne.

The product dates back to the late ’90s, and has almost always been targeted primarily at the 15–25-year-old male demographic (though Unilever has experimented with products and marketing directed at women and older men). It has also been examining the notion that “sex sells” for just as long.

The fragrance sector often plays up the alluring, passionate, and perhaps even lurid associations of perfumes, colognes, and other personal fragrances. But the days of the pinup girl have given way to far more diverse and advanced techniques.

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The Power of Personas

To better appreciate its customer base, Unilever made extensive use of personas – fictional characters that represent potential customers. Personas offer a more granular mode of target marketing. First you figure out your demo, and then you slice it up into further groups, honing in on those who are available and how they are different from others.

As designer Alan Cooper put it, “Each strong brand has a tribe of people who share affinity with the brand’s values. This universe typically divides into a number of different communities, within which there are the same or very similar buying behaviors, and whose personality and characteristics towards the brand (product or service) can be understood in terms of common values, attitudes and assumptions.”

Personas help prevent self-referential design, and keep the focus where it should be, on the largest and most desirable subgroup, rather than on edge cases.

Business Insider recently published information from marketing expert Martin Lindstrom’s 2011 book Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buywhich detailed Axe’s persona strategy. Lindstrom interviewed David Cousino, a marketing director at Unilever, and revealed a surprisingly frank, even unseemly, taxonomy of Axe’s potential customers:

The Predator is dishonest and aggressive in his pursuit of female companionship, while Natural Talent is genuinely charismatic (“doesn’t need to lie to score”). Marriage Material is honest and respectful, but not a pushover. Always the Friend never manages to move past the first stage of courtship. The Insecure Novice lacks experience and ambition, and The Enthusiastic Novice doesn’t know what he’s doing, but is eager to learn.

The first three groups tend to have more success with women, while their compatriots in the friend zone and novice classes are typically sidelined by doubts and failings. “Then, [Axe] determined that The Insecure Novice would be their natural target, since he needs the most help in getting women, and would be easily persuaded into buying a product that could aid the woes of nerdhood.”

But it may have become a victim of its own success, as the brand has been forced to backpedal somewhat for fear of becoming permanently associated only with the lovelorn and unpopular.



Lately, the effectiveness of sex in advertising in general has come under fire, with critics calling it anachronistic, and even some marketers admitting that its usefulness is not what it used to be. Using sex can attract some demographics, but turns off others. A noted 2015 study conducted by the American Psychological Association showed that “Buying intentions decreased when brands were embedded in programs that contained sex.”

Axe has always marketed itself as a product that will make men more attractive to women, sometimes so enthusiastically that it has been accused of outright sexism and misogyny. Perhaps sensing a change in cultural currents, it has shifted to a more inclusive marketing plan. The theme of its TV ad for this year’s Super Bowl, “Find Your Magic,” was the sexiness of individuality.

Matthew McCarthy, senior director of Axe and men’s grooming at Unilever, told AdWeek“Masculinity today is going through seismic changes. More than ever, guys are rejecting rigid male stereotypes.” The ad featured a more diverse cast than the typical Axe spot, including a man in a wheelchair and another in high heels.

But sex’s power in advertising is still a force to be reckoned with. According to Tom Reichert, professor of advertising at the University of Georgia, “Sex sells because it attracts attention. People are hardwired to notice sexually relevant information, so ads with sexual content get noticed.”

Deep biological instincts don’t vanish overnight, so it’s fair to say that sex in advertising, while potentially on the wane, will still be with us for some time. Axe is walking a fine line by trying to appeal to our carnal drives, but in a manner that is consistent with modern sensibilities. Time will tell if it got the formula right.