By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 25, 2005
Fragrances are a personal thing, and so one man's sweet aroma is another man's stench. Thus every effort will be made not to render too cruel a judgment upon Axe, the deodorant body spray that arrived on these shores from Europe and proceeded to leave a pungent cloud in bathrooms and locker rooms around the country.
If you are not a young Lothario in the brand's 18-to-24-year-old target audience or an adolescent boy hungry for his first sniff of manhood, or a young woman fending off their advances, then in all likelihood you are unaware that Voodoo is one of Axe's eight different scents and no longer simply a religion of spirits and fetishes. Voodoo is vaguely sweaty, somewhat powdery and reminiscent of the aroma that wafted off your grandmother's dressing table. A week after it was spritzed on a piece of white note paper, it's as odorous as ever.
Apparently boys like that.
Axe's presence has become unavoidable. It has become a dominant brand in the men's deodorant market. It has inspired imitators. It cannot be ignored.
The Axe brand is owned by Unilever, the mammoth international consumer products company that produces everything from Hellmann's mayonnaise and Slim-Fast shakes to Surf laundry detergent. A version of Axe, under the brand name Lynx, was launched in France in 1983 and was soon perfuming much of Europe and Latin America. Axe was introduced in the United States in 2002, much to the chagrin of anyone with olfactory memories of a 1980s dance club after the lights came up and everyone stopped doing the cabbage patch.
Axe is not merely a deodorant meant to be rolled on sparingly under the arms. It is not simply a cologne meant to be dabbed behind the ears, on the wrists and other pulse points. The rise of Axe signals the birth of a new category in men's grooming: body deodorant. Axe is a cologne with stink-prevention properties.
It is meant to be sprayed all over the body with the exuberance that might be used to apply Deep Woods Off!, and anecdotal evidence suggests that young men -- particularly those in Generation Junior High -- have been dutifully following the package instructions: "Just hold can 6 inches from your body and spray all over, including your chest, neck, underarms -- anywhere you want to smell great." Indeed, some boys must want to smell really, really great. From about 50 yards away.
Over the course of two years, Unilever has spent more than $100 million advertising Axe, according to the trade journal Advertising Age. The message of that advertising has essentially focused on one idea: Wear Axe, get the girls. Not just one girl, but many, many girls. In the desperately optimistic tradition of Hai Karate commercials or Tone Loc's "Funky Cold Medina," Axe ads suggest that if a guy spritzes on a lot of Voodoo, priced at $4.99 for a four-ounce can, he will attract a stampede of women. He will get a little action. Because there is nothing like playing to a young man's insecurities when it comes to the ladies, Axe has been a tremendous success.
"Girls want guys to smell clean and be groomed. The point is [guys] feel more confident," says Kevin George, Unilever's director of marketing for U.S. deodorants. Axe "provides them with the confidence to go out and ask a girl for her phone number, to get those digits."
George has been part of the Axe team since its U.S. launch. He speaks with a permanent chuckle embedded in his voice, but without a hint of irony. He tends to repeat certain phrases for emphasis and clarity, and there is not a shred of self-doubt as he boils down the "universal truth" about men: They want to meet "girls, girls, girls."
To market Axe, street teams went to college campuses and handed out thong underwear, printed with an Axe Web address, to young men. Thongs were surreptitiously slipped into dryers at nearby laundromats -- hopefully to be found by single, young men and not their jealous girlfriends. Axe has sponsored singles parties. In 2003, the company created a cartoon armpit with feet -- a sort of Rorschach test of sexual innuendo -- that women in the ads cozied up to.
There are advertisements on the brand's Web site in which a woman's bare back is imprinted with the shape of a hanger or an elevator key pad or a steering wheel or anything else she might have been smashed up against during spontaneous snuggling, canoodling or going-all-the-way. The tag line: It can happen anywhere. The Axe Effect.
"I love my job!" George says. "You will have to drag me kicking and screaming from this job."
Unilever is so enthusiastic in its use of provocative, outlandish sexual images that it hired a consultant to police advertisements for signs of excessive lewdness.
"They wanted to make sure they weren't doing anything offensive," says Jane Buckingham, trend consultant and founder of the market research firm Youth Intelligence. Unilever didn't think the advertising would offend 18-to-24-year-olds, but the company worried about what other people would say. "The ads are a little sexy and a little un-PC and it was at a time when people were being hyper-PC. And it was a new category," Buckingham says.
By now, "it's gotten to the point where I tell them, 'You guys know the fine line really well,' " Buckingham says. Then she admits, "Occasionally, I go, 'Oops!' "
In Unilever's deodorant division, Axe already is the No. 1 seller, surpassing sales of the company's traditional brands -- Degree, Dove and Suave. And in the close fight for supremacy in the more than $1 billion world of men's deodorants, Axe rose to No. 1 in 2004, surpassing Right Guard and Old Spice, according to A.C. Nielsen Corp. So far his year, it has slipped to No. 2, behind Old Spice.
Axe's success has inspired other companies to grab for a piece of that exceedingly smelly market. Last year, Old Spice introduced Red Zone deodorant body spray. This year, Gillette unveiled Tag. An advertisement for Tag in the May issue of Cargo magazine shows a young man with dirty blond hair wearing a plaid shirt -- and what is dangerously close to a puka-shell necklace -- being tackled by an entire women's volleyball team whose members bear expressions of orgiastic delight.
The fight for deodorant body spray dominance is on.
Axe's rise to the top was facilitated by vanity loosed. The men's grooming market was primed for new products aimed at a generation of young men who do not treat personal vanity as a sign of effeminacy or a dirty secret. While high-end brands such as Clinique, Kiehl's and John Allan's have catered to men who want to inject luxury and pampering into their daily grooming routines, the mass market has been lacking.
"In rural America, you may not even be exposed to Kiehl's," Buckingham says. Axe is something "anybody can afford and everyone is exposed to." There it is at the local CVS, at Wal-Mart, on Drugstore.com.
But the success of Axe is based on more than geography. It benefited from a fragrance "Nose" -- the scent industry's professional interpreters of the arcane language of fragrances. Axe's Nose is the same sniffer who helped concoct such prestigious Calvin Klein scents as Obsession and Eternity. And it was helped by the mundane fact that, in technical deodorant-speak, everyone considered the United States a "stick market."
"Aerosols -- that big, bug-spray-looking can -- were in decline," George says. "We spent a lot of time in front of our target audience and we realized: That generation hadn't thought of aerosols as a bad thing. They looked at it as a new form. They didn't have any baggage associated with the aerosol market." (Who could have imagined that aerosol deodorants came with issues ?)
"This was a very functional market, the deodorant market," George says. "Everybody was truly offering the same thing: stop odor and wetness, stop odor and wetness." Axe had the audacity to be an aerosol that promised to do more.
There are eight Axe scents: Touch, Essence, Phoenix, Kilo, Tsunami, Orion, Apollo and, of course, Voodoo. Each sounds like the name of a fern bar or a star of Wrestlemania. The scents are based on descriptions in a "brief" submitted to the Nose. The Nose, who can speak in terms both technical and poetic, then consulted with the perfumer. The perfumer, an artful chemist working in a lab, created the "juice," which is the fragrance itself. The brief for Axe included a lot of technical minutiae assigning each scent to a specific category such as "oriental" or "citrus." Briefs are notoriously filled with vague, nearly indecipherable demands. Unilever wanted scents that expressed emotions and ideas such as "authenticity," "confidently male" and "a warmer sexier side with a deliciously sensual heart." Touch, for example, was regularly described as evoking "that anticipation before the first touch, when you're first meeting a girl."
The Nose was Ann Gottlieb. She describes herself as the "director of the orchestra." Gottlieb has had her own self-named business for 23 years and before that worked in the fragrance industry in product development. She has the kind of New York accent that always makes her sound rushed, and with her clipped, straight-to-the-point demeanor, it is hard to imagine her dealing in metaphors and allusions. Her most essential tool, her actual nose, looks rather dainty and unassuming.
Gottlieb has worked on fragrances for Carolina Herrera and continues to be the Nose for Unilever's Calvin Klein scents. Her experience had been in the prestige market -- the expensive brands sold in department stores -- rather than the mass market fragrances. The creative processes in the two categories, she says, are distinctly different. Mass marketers typically come up with a group of fragrances, spread them out in front of a focus group and ask which it likes the best. The scent with the most votes goes on the market.
"It's a system used across the board for deodorants," she says. "It's still used today by companies that are not fragrance-oriented."
"I smell very strategically," Gottlieb explains. "When you open a bottle, what comes out will continue to support the brand strategy." In other words, Gottlieb's job was not just to make sure Axe smelled good to young men. She made sure it smelled "confidently male." The company still used focus groups, but it also relied on Gottlieb's sensibility.
"I brought a prestige note to mass market," she boasts. "Testers can't tell if something smells classy."
If it seems, upon spritzing a bit of Touch into the air, that you are quickly overwhelmed by the smell, it is not your imagination. Touch is a spicy scent reminiscent of patchouli and clove cigarettes and with an unsettling undercurrent of Drakkar Noir. Axe fragrances, which are packaged in a black aerosol can that vaguely resembles a bullet, are constructed to attack the nose with the subtlety of a cannon. There is no slow "dry down" during which the fragrance subtly reveals its full self. It doesn't particularly change as it warms to body temperature. This is part of the sales pitch.
"The fragrance that goes in the can is a compressed version of the fragrance," Gottlieb says. "Top, middle, dry down, it happens much faster. You have to get each part right away.
"You get a chance to spray once," Gottlieb says. "With young men here -- more than in Europe -- you need to seduce them as customers right away. They don't have time to wait and see how it develops."
The ambitions for Axe are enormous for a grooming product that can be found in the automotive and electronics departments, in addition to the deodorant aisle. But George envisions transforming Axe into a brand with the cultural resonance of names such as MTV, Nike and iPod.
"It's not enough just to be the best deodorant marketers," George says.
Just recently, the company introduced shower gels. One advertisement pictures a towel rack next to a shower. There are four towels: "his," "hers," "her sister's" and "her roommate's." The tag line: How Dirty Boys Get Clean .
Young men can now layer on the Axe. Double the Kilo. Double the Touch. Until it is possible to smell the odor of authentic, confident masculinity long before the man ever enters the room -- and reveals that, no matter what his age, he's really just a boy.