Help me solve marketing’s biggest mystery

marketing's biggest mystery

By Mark Schaefer

It was one of the most imaginative, creative and popular marketing campaigns in history.

Television, print, digital, social media all coalescing into a perfect blend of viral heat.

“This changes marketing forever” the headlines trumpeted.

And the results? Product sales DOUBLED in two months and some stores reported shortages. More important, it re-invented a sagging brand and made it relevant to a new generation of consumers.

Of course I’m talking about the Old Spice The Man Your Man Could Smell Like campaign of 2010.

Marketing’s biggest mystery begins

The campaign was brilliant. The visual puns, attitude, and lovable, manly arrogance of actor Isaiah Mustafa had the nation talking about it, writing about it, even coming up with their own tributes. The TV ads were so good they received more than 6 million views on YouTube!

marketing's biggest mysteryAnd then the miracle — the Old Spice Man came alive, interacting with fans on Twitter and, most memorably, YouTube where he recorded more than 200 hilarious, personal video responses to fans (generating 24 million views). It wasn’t the first campaign to seamlessly integrate traditional and social media but it was the first to make it a central part of the campaign.

It was a marketing triumph.

But nothing changed

The marketing world waited for the revolution. Now every national campaign would use this formula, right?


While many campaigns today are integrated in some manner — maybe a print ad to promote a Facebook contest or a Facebook ad to promote a TV-based campaign, nothing has approached the impact of the Old Spice campaign four years ago.

For example, during the 2014 Super Bowl ads I didn’t detect a single social media tie-in or call to action. Yes, the ads got plenty of views on YouTube but this is simply another channel to view a television ad. I don’t consider that a “social” integration on the level of the Old Spice campaign. So even in advertising’s greatest showcase there aren’t many (any?) truly integrated campaigns.

And this is the mystery to me. Why not?

Obviously the creativity, technology and business case are there. In 2010 using social media to promote a product was a novelty but most big brands should have it figured out by now.

Instead of ushering in an era of magnificent creativity and seamless multi-media events, everybody went back to the comfort zone of their traditional silos.

I honestly cannot explain why it is not happening more. The only rational explanation is that the organizational hurdles are too high and keeping the status quo in place. Is that possible?

So help me out here. Why didn’t the Old Spice campaign “change everything” like we thought it would?

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  • Maybe brands didn’t want to take the chance of having their strategy compared to the Old Spice campaign. If they didn’t match it’s success then their efforts could backfire and cause negative publicity.

    Other than that I agree, why haven’t more brands used this approach :/

  • Steve Hardy

    because too many marketing organizations organize by marketing function causing silo’d execution that’s disconnected from the each other and the goals of the business!

  • jen bryant

    As the old saying goes: Everyone wants something unique and different… and five examples of how well it has worked before.

  • I think it’s actually pretty simple: it’s a matter of imagination. A lot of business / marketing folk talk about creativity, but few are good at marshaling it in a meaningful way.
    I’m not necessarily dishing on anyone, in particular being a full stack marketer is a thankless and never-ending job. The few people doing imagination well know they are not a designer, reporter/pure storyteller, or documentarian, but they are good at building those collaborations.

  • I think it’s a combination of factors, but the main issue is that companies can’t envision how they could replicate this. They think “well, it works for Old Spice because they have a different audience,” or a consumer oriented product, or or or, but they can’t seem to stretch their imagination to contemplate how they might incorporate some of the elements into their own marketing to similar effect. Vision and imagination are as important as business insight and analytical thinking!

  • I agree with Barry’s comment – I think that companies did not want to be compared with Old Spice… especially if their campaign did not do as well. I think another reason is that companies just didn’t (and don’t) have the guts to try it. They don’t have to do the exact same thing, but they could do a modified version of it.

  • Jason Jue

    Is there a good case study on the executional tactics of what made it successful?

  • Alina Kelly

    I agree with Kerry, it’s likely an array of factors. Funnelling all creative resources against one campaign may be perceived as putting “all your eggs in one basket” – too much risk. Perhaps Old Spice hit for the fence because they had nothing to lose. They were, as you say, a sagging brand.

    Or perhaps it’s the challenge of working across corporate silos as Steve points out. You need really strong leadership and a clear vision to make that happen: someone at the top with the power to mandate it, and someone at the operating level to mobilize the silos toward a common goal – no mean feat.

    Part of the challenge may relate to performance/rewards. Odds are that performance measures don’t include “cross company” campaigns. Perhaps they should, but then who do you blame/reward if/when it works/fails? Managers may think: If my numbers don’t reward cross-silo efforts, how much energy am I going to put into making one work?

    I’ve been involved in one of these cross-silo marketing efforts and those were a few of the challenges. We made it work, but as Joe points out – it was a thankless, never-ending job at times.

    Having said all that, I hope that someone has the courage to try another of these creative, cross-channel, integrated campaigns soon. And I hope someone has the creative chops and imagination to deliver it as well.

  • Interesting persoective. But even Old Spice hasn’t been able to re-create their magic. Their current ads are terrible : )

  • I think that is a big part of it Steve. Thanks for taking your time to comment!

  • Good to hear from you Jen. Was just thinking about you and thinking it was time to head to Louisville again soon!

  • Tough one. I know some pretty creative people on Madison Avenue. Wonder if it is more about risk-taking?

  • Very true Kerry. They need to hire us. : )

  • I think “guts” is a big issue. Old Spice was such a tired brand they probably had less to lose by being bold.

  • This is probably one of the most documented marketing case studies in history. It was written about for months by AdAge and all the major journals.

  • This is simply a brilliant comment Alina. Thanks so much for this gift!

  • And how, Mark!

  • That would make sense – my experience is that the creative chops are out there, but no one’s aligning them. The rat race of exploiting tactics and moving on has a lot to do with it, and a poor understanding of metrics (e.g. “need more leads” vs. “drive behaviors that drive leads”) definitely hurts, too.

  • But, I still think that imagination is a risk activity, so maybe it’s a combination of what we are both saying..

  • That’s a good point – and I think the tools vs. vision thing is really in effect. I don’t think many people here mistake using a new social tool for actually engaging, but I do hear that thinking from the exec level on at least a semi-regular basis. It makes me a little uneasy to say, but maybe it’s really a function of hubris and lack of guts. I mean, is there a lack of creative talent to execute an imaginative campaign, I don’t think so.

  • MaureenMonte

    I didn’t have an answer to your question, which made me want to come look and see what the “smart kids” had to say about it. All good stuff – interesting learning for me.

  • : )

  • Well said Joe.

  • There’s a lot of great info here–as a beginning marketer I’m starting to see the challenges through the reluctance of some of our clients to try new things. Maybe, like it’s been said, it’s a fear of being compared to Old Spice. Maybe the C-Suite doesn’t have the guts to try something original… the entrenched attitudes of executives in big companies is well-known.

    Maybe it’s just seen as passé, as something that’s “already been done”, but people are stuck as to what comes next. Things move so fast for any one person to follow these days…

  • Hey Mark, perhaps its the concern that every big business and single entrepreneur goes through called change? I know we preach adapt and embrace change and then go do the same old routine with our advertising. Old Spice was just lucky enough (or was this on purpose?) to create a campaign that won the viewers over.

    I’m not the thought leader you are by far, and I’m sure you can answer this question a lot better than I ever could, but one thing that sticks out to me is not wanting to change what they know works. Venturing out into the unknown is scary…especially when it could lose you millions as a large corporation.

  • Allen Roberts

    My take after 40 years in marketing.
    The “profession” is amazingly “hourglass” shaped. There are a few really good, innovative, technically savvy marketers whose talents are thinly spread across a wide arena of activity, and confronted by a powerful status quo that has (largely) yet to embrace the risk-taking and sheer hard work required to generate the sort of insight that leads to genuinely creative marketing.
    Then there is the choke point of technology.
    No matter how much our day to day lives have been changed by technology, the changes are not as deep as many of us would like to think, most just go along with it, using it superficially without a deep understanding of the implications. Technology, and the experimentation mind set has not yet been embraced in many (perhaps most) boardrooms, from SME’s to multinationals, so the resources are not made available, and the risks frowned upon.
    Then there are the bulk of those who call themselves marketers. They may know the jargon, and talk up a storm, but in my experience, the average quality of intellect brought to the table is disturbingly low. Many are simply not professional quality thinkers, managers and leaders, despite their self image.The best marketers I have seen almost all have a professional qualification of some sort, common, science, engineering, music, law, and for some reason,they find themselves drawn to marketing. They bring seem to bring raw intellect, curiosity and intellectual discipline to marketing problems that simply makes them better than someone with just a “marketing” qualification.
    Pretty damming comments, but I have been around a long time, and seen a lot. ,

  • DortchOnIT

    Mark, et al.:

    You know those jokes that begin with “How many [fill in the blank]s does it take to change a lightbulb? Here’s my favorite.

    “How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?”

    “Only one, but the light bulb must really want to change.”

    I’ve been in marketing and the high-tech world for more than 35 years now. Consistently, I’ve seen that even the most tech-savvy, market-savvy marketer needs support “from above” — leadership buy-in — to make anything worthwhile happen. And a lot of executives are, at heart, risk-averse and suspicious if not downright fearful of change. Even when they’ve seen examples of risk and change succeed at other, similar organizations.

    Naysayers said user-dial-able telephones would never catch on sufficiently to replace operator assistance — or the telegram. The entertainment industry said that movies would kill live theater, television would kill movies and streaming would kill television. And of course, business schools have taught for years that none of the leading railroad magnates took early aircraft seriously enough to become airline owners.

    Change is hard. It’s especially hard when comprehensive business transformation, enabled and driven by rapid technological evolution, challenges and confronts the comfort of inertia and success. (I’ve actually heard business decision makers respond to transformational opportunities by saying “we’re doing well enough already.”)

    Sometimes, those most resistant to transformational change in the business world are the ones who should and could be leading it, and benefitting from it the most. It’s sometimes sad and sometimes frustrating to those less fearful and more optimistic, but it’s been true for a long, long time, and it will likely be a long, long time, if ever, before this dynamic itself changes significantly. Thanks for the great article, and the opportunity to share observations with you and your sharp, thoughtful readers!

  • I think that is a valid point but there is so much potential for integration. I was hoping somebody would come on to the comment section and say “Wait! It really is being done a lot! You just have not seen it!” : (

  • I think that is a very legitimate point Wade. I see this a lot. I might work with a brand on a social strategy but once it gets turned over to the ad agency it comes back smelling a lot like a traditional ad campaign. Why? That’s what they know! Good point. Thank you!

  • This is a fantastic blog post in its own right Allen. Amazing.

    I think you are right, too and maybe that is really the heart of the problem. You’ve helped clarify my own thinking on this and helped me connect the dots between this post and one I wrote a few weeks back about why ad agenciew are so slow to embrace social. Really the same issue. I wonder if there was the same reluctance to change when TV came around, or the Internet? Might be some interesting parallels.

    From my own work with brands, from the outside I imagined that these companies would be filled with the most nimble minds ready to embrace the big ideas. But many times they are just budget managers waiting for the ad agency to tell them what to do. Even the smartest people are weighed down by bureacracy and ad contracts. I do believe you have cut to the heart of the matter, or at least a big part of it. Thank you!

  • Fantastic comment that builds on a theme here in the comment section. As usual, the comment section on {grow| is much better than the original blog post! Well done sir.

  • Thanks Mark, I am very happy to have added to the debate.

    The challenge of finding, then motivating and keeping great marketers productive has been a part of my life for a long time, and I have reflected on it quite a bit, including this post from about a year ago .

    As usual, your posts and discussions add greatly to the pool of knowledge we all access.

  • I like the path of this discussion a lot. I think there are elements in every one of these comments that are true parts of the overall issue. I’d like to add another. As much as companies say they want an open conversation with their customers, I don’t really think most of them mean it. Every spread sheet driven meeting seems to confirm that. “Show me how to up these numbers by 47 thousand – talk Friday then.”
    They haven’t put the investment, structure of talent in place to make cross medium work. Traveling down the road of many touch-points takes time and concentration, may leave you open to something risky, cause a firestorm you didn’t anticipate, affect your numbers and therefore your job. Said the Pres. “I’ve seen television commercials for years, if it’s not effective I can pull it and maybe fire the agency…the almost worst case scenario is that no one will talk about it.” His eyes glaze over when you mention Pinterest.

    I don’t think you’ll see real change in this category until more two thumb texters make their way into decision making positions.

  • That is SO true.

  • There’s always something amazing happening on the internet. That’s why I love it. But so very few of these amazing things come from marketers, because, as Allen remarks, most “marketers” (I’d say those coming out of business schools, but that would be a generalization) lack creativity, critical thinking, depth.

    It’s awfully easy to copy–but not everyone can truly innovate.

  • BOOM. I am literally nodding my head in agreement on this one Gordon!

  • Mark,
    This takes me back to a moment ~15 years ago I feel bad about to this day. Our head of creative, our VP of Marketing, and I (running Product Marketing at the time) were discussing a campaign. I described an approach more ambitious than usual. Our head of creative talked for several minutes about the challenge, the schedule, etc. The VP listened patiently and then she looked at me to translate. I replied, “It’s harder, so it takes longer.” Although it’s a jerk move in hindsight, it was intended as an honest translation of the problem.
    We ended up doing the more ambitious plan, but our creative head never recovered. A colleague I valued was gone in a few weeks. Years later, my lesson (beyond the personal one) is to be skeptical when the only obstacle to doing the right thing is “It’s harder, so it takes longer.” Yet I believe that is, in fact, the main obstacle to great marketing–integrated across platforms or otherwise.
    Ken Rosen
    Performance Works

  • Thanks for sharing your wisdom on this one Ken. Great anecdote.

  • An exciting campaign might sound amazing in theory or in a pitch but in execution, it could be boring, awkward, or much worse. It’s a significant amount of pressure for a CMO to take a risk on innovative/experimental marketing.

  • Gunther Sonnenfeld

    I think it’s pretty simple, really: this is a classic case of an agency and a brand that didn’t think in terms of a platform, but only in terms of a campaign (and more specifically, award-winning broadcast spots).

    A platform would be: people + media + technology. Behind it, data (structured, unstructured, semi-structured, primary). Driving ongoing efforts would be how the data informs new media creations, handling audience/customers feedback, and developing the platform as a ‘brand system’, including ways to improve the product… and increase sales for the longer term.

    The numbers were indeed staggering on this effort — something like 200k new subs on YouTube in the first few weeks. Impression/view counts can be fleeting, but they were enormous, in the tens of millions. The bottom line is that the brand had some presence of mind to serialize episodes with Mustafa on YouTube, to which people commented on a range of things about him and the product, and not just on YouTube, but across digital/social channels — everything from blogs, to editorials, to advertorials and of course, Twitter. If the brand or the agency had thought of this as a giant, dynamic focus group, now they’d have an opportunity to lever this as a platform indefinitely, whereby people participate in the media you create with them (ever-evolving stories involving Mustafa and uses of the product). Plus, you’d have a chance to improve the product or develop new skews, which would in turn not only build a relationship with the customer base, but you could constantly resegment, retarget, customize and do all sorts of things without having to continuously push brand messages like you do in broadcast. In fact, the digital efforts would inform the broadcast efforts AND you could optimize the media bought against it, as well as get smart about the paid and owned efforts.

    I could on about product design, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

    I bet between what the agency charged in production fees just for the broadcast efforts, the brand would’ve gained 6-8x the effect through some of the above, just by thinking through the implications of what they could with a captive audience or a customer segment. But they didn’t.

    Such a wasted opportunity.

  • I had a college coach that used to say (in reference to competing at a nat’l level) just do what you did to get there. Given how lots of people struggle at a bigger level this is a pretty good way to end up ahead, but it doesn’t do much for creativity (in sports the example would be Steve Prefontaine, who would rather have failed than to complete a race he didn’t believe in).

    On the other hand, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Old Spice campaign probably surprised some people internally in terms of how successful it was. But really if innovation / risk / imagination are already in your DNA you should be pleased but not shocked by how well it did. Maybe that’s a crucial part of the answer here, they tried something that wasn’t in their DNA and success or not it wasn’t really going to change their behaviors or approach.

  • Amazing projections Gunther. I’ve often wondered why P&G didn’t keep it rolling and further leveraging the phenomenon as you suggest. The follow-up ads have been deplorable.

  • What it all seems to boil down to is FEAR. Of failure, rejection and
    ridicule. Innovation has risk built in, and a realized risk gets you
    fired. All three fears at play. Hence the safe bets resulting in
    mediocrity all around, in companies as well as agencies.

  • Rational thinking Kimmo. Certainly true in many cases.

  • Mark, you touched on it in one of your comments below, but the issue here is something deeper and more troubling that many would want to know or admit.

    In this study, three ivy league professors reached some interesting findings about why people tend to shy away from creativity.

    I researched the concept because I was selling something unique, and wanted to understand why rational analysis wasn’t getting people to buy.

    This study should be on the desk of every marketing professional on the planet, and surely, every sales pro too.

    The conclusions are dramatic, and scary, because they present our conditioned response to anything that smells uncertain. Creativity or innovation BOTH come with a strong scent of uncertainty.

    It is the uncertainty we “fear”. The scary, and what most likely answers your question, is we are NOT aware of the fear.

    We make what appear to be rational and logical choices when in fact we are making choices based on our own risk aversion.

    This is an extremely valuable thing to know, for us, and for those who lead organizations in need of innovation.

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