Old Spice Lesson #1: It’s Subservient Chicken All Over Again / by Dan Weingrod

There have already been a ton of great posts written about the Old Spice campaign, but some of the comments have felt like deja-vu all over again.

There have already been a ton of great posts written about the Old Spice campaign. I know that I'm adding to the tonnage, but in this case I’d like to focus on how some of the reaction to the campaign felt like déjà vu all over again. I caught the YouTube portion of the campaign while on vacation and was immediately smitten by its breakthrough brilliance, but when I got back to work a lot of the comments were centered on “Did it sell more product”?  Seemed like a surprising reaction, but when I searched my internal wayback machine for “breakthrough campaigns” I realized that I’d heard this before.

Back in 2004 when the Subservient Chicken web site appeared seemingly out of nowhere the initial reaction began with utter delight at the brilliance of the idea and its execution. There were plenty of phone calls, (remember phone calls?), forwarded e-mails and discussions of a whole new era for the Web. But before too long the question: “So how many burgers did this actually sell?” started coming up. I remember this question well, because at that time I was one of the people asking it. With Old Spice, I’m not asking the question. In fact, I think it’s pretty much irrelevant. With the benefit of hindsight here’s why I asked the question then and why it’s being asked again today:

  • Envy – Back in 2004 I sure was envious of Subservient, I wished I could have even thought of something as brilliant. So naturally I went looking for any sort of hole I could punch in it. The same kind of envy exists for today Old Spice. A prime contributor to this is the fact that deep in our marketing hearts we know that we will never be able to do something quite like this again. Our only option is to iterate. But that’s just fine, Subservient wasn’t copied, but it paved the way for a new generation of web sites based on a similar user interaction and moved social Web experience forward dramatically. In the same way the Old Spice campaign, particularly its YouTube replies element, should become a new standard for mixing paid, owned and earned video. Considered in this light breaking new ground trumps envy. We should sit back, appreciate the work and consider how we can build on it rather than looking for reasons to tear it down.
  • Snobbery –When Subservient first came out the subtext of much of the negative comment was whether your average Burger King customer, (i.e. poor, minority), could even understand the word “subservient” let alone the nuanced brilliance of the campaign. With Old Spice a similar reaction is happening as some consider the great creative effort and high concept structure built around selling a pretty mundane product for a sleepy brand. Unfortunately this is where we have to face some hard truths as marketers. Sometimes we sell burgers, sometimes we sell bodywash and someday we can hopefully sell really complex and brilliant products like better access to health care, clean drinking water and shelter for all mankind. We could only wish that we could do it as effectively as this campaign has done.
  • Brand vs. Sales – When questions came up about how well Subservient did at selling burgers, one defense was that it was not really a campaign about sales but about re-positioning the Burger King brand. This defense might have worked then, but it doesn’t hold water today. We’re living in an age of accountability and ultimately our job is to move product. Old Spice is very much a rebranding campaign, but it also clearly had its eye on sales by working hard and using the right platforms to build the mass awareness and engagement that would lead to higher sales. Can 120 million upload views on YouTube be wrong? Shouldn’t this level of engaged traffic lead to at least a bump in sales?

In fact it looks like it did. After initial numbers about an 8% drop in sales, based on year over year data through June 13, a new look at more recent numbers shows that Old Spice Body Wash sales have increased by 11% and that Red Zone Body Wash sales, the product featured in the campaign have increased by 49%.

So Old Spice lesson #1 is to bottle up envy and snobbery when confronted with something that just works. The sales bump may be icing on the cake, but the great creative thinking and breakthrough use of media will hopefully transform how we approach connecting paid, owned and earned media in the future.