Does all of this help make money? No doubt. But in the Axe Republic, that’s the wrong question. Unilever considers Axe its special test kitchen, a place to experiment with ideas before there’s any metric to judge them. “They helped us define the idea of communication and innovation-led growth,” says Rob Master, Unilever VP of media for the Americas and Europe. One or two years after they’re rolled out, Axe tactics filter into other Unilever brands—so, say, when you help Mom make dinner in Ragu’s thrill-seeking online Let’s Get Cooking game, you have Axe to thank.
For a vast company like Unilever that’s seen flat profits and some sagging divisions—particularly in food, where in February it reported a year-over-year volume decline of 3.9%—this is money well spent, says Morningstar analyst Erin Lash. “Unilever has been focused on growing its high-growth, higher-margin personal-care brands, so obviously leveraging learning from one brand could aid other segments that may not be performing up to expectations.” And if there is one recession-proof resource, it is the libido of a teenage boy.
So what does Axe stand for, aside from the God-given right to get laid? Those field trips are designed to answer that question. For example, when Rubin saw that Axe brand awareness was lagging among African-Americans, he and some Republic comrades took a trip to Howard University, in Washington, D.C. Rubin asked fraternity members there to take him shopping at a nearby store, which was tough going: Rubin’s a small fit. So the Howard men huddled and started talking brand sizing—Seven is a little tighter, Boss tends to size big—to figure out what might work. Rubin perked up. “Fraternity guys talking about which jeans run tight on sizes? That’s not a conversation we’d hear at Ohio State,” he says. So he dug in and found that these Howard guys had a different level of confidence from the usual Axe buyer: “Getting a girl is not their game; getting that girl is their game.”
Armed with that insight, Axe developed a new line, which debuted in 2005: Unlimited, which carried the tagline “For Players Only.” It sold well, Rubin says.
Another example: Back in 2002, the Axe Republic comrades say, they saw guys and girls hanging out in separate social groups. That informed Axe’s first U.S. outreach, a viral video in which a cheerleader tackles a high-school football player and claws at his uniform. Axe was the player’s emissary: It wafted into Girlville for him and brought back a catch. But now, kids hang out in mixed-gender groups; they’re pals, then hookup buddies, then pals again. That complicates things. “The proposition of Axe is it helps guys be attractive to women,” says Rubin. “Because of that, women are our proof point. I mean, we can’t make guys more attractive to girls if the girls don’t agree with us.”„