Gillette, And the Power of WALS


As my book Brand Relevance asserts—the only way to grow is to create a “must have.” It must define a new subcategory and then manage that subcategory by becoming its exemplar through ongoing innovation that creates a moving target.

No brand has done that better than Gillette.

Instead of being killed off by the introduction of the electric razor in the 1930s, it used innovation and self-expressive benefits to lead the subcategory (and thus Gillette) into profitability and dominance for the better part of a century throughout the developed world.

Gillette has been most impressive in India. In 2008, Gillette’s premium shaving subcategory needed to fight the low end, double-edged razors that had 80 percent of the market, as well as a growing subcategory represented by men modeling the stubble look of some movie stars who shaved only once a week. The breakthrough was a Gillette-stimulated program called W.A.L.S. (Women Against Lazy Stubble), designed to change perceptions and behavior toward the subcategory (as opposed to the Gillette brand).

It was based in part on a 2008 Nielsen survey that revealed 77 percent of women in India preferred clean-shaven men. The effort involved the campaign, “India votes, to shave or not,” the endorsement of two glamorous Bollywood actresses, a record setting event in which 2,000 males shaved simultaneously, and more.

The momentum of W.A.L.S. helped, but more was needed to counter the low-end market. Into that context, Gillette made its signature Mach3 razor much less costly (to only three times that of the double-edged razors where it had been fifty times). Perhaps more important, a new razor was developed, the Gillette Guard, which was equal in cost to that of the double edged razors. In addition, Gillette crated a distribution strategy that accessed the rural retailers that reached the mass of users outside urban areas.

By 2013, two out of every three razors sold in India was a Gillette Guard and the Mach3 enjoyed an increase in sales of some 500 percent.

Then the home-run program was imported into the United States market. In 2013 Gillette launched the Kiss & Tell campaign to document the fact that women in the United States did not like stubble. In fact, in a survey of 1,000 women, one-third said that they have avoided kissing a guy because he had facial hard and more than one-half of the respondents said that they an experienced facial scraping or irritation from facial hair. The campaign included a YouTube documentary (with a variety of experts relevant to kissing) a microsite (couples can provide kissing feedback at, and live events (the largest shaving lesson and the most kisses in one minute).

The take-away is that there is a huge pay-off in focusing on building and managing a subcategory rather than being preoccupied with “my brand is better than your brand” marketing. Winning can be based on making competitors irrelevant, instead of just “not preferred.”

With few exceptions, creating, protecting and building subcategories is the only way to grow.

About David Aaker

David Aaker is Prophet's Vice Chairman, based out of the San Francisco office. His oddest job? Delivering Culligan soft water tanks.

  • Linda Hornberg

    The man in the photo above has several days worth of soft beard growth. At worst, his partner would be tickled by it. It hardly qualifies as stubble, and, I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking it makes him damned cute.
    On my son’s 18 th birthday he received several free razors by mail, one of them as part of Gillette’s Kissandtellus campaign. We stuck the package in the closet as a spare, and off he went to college, most likely toting a bulk pack of Gillette disposable razors.
    He is home this week for Spring Break, so out came the free razor, but this time I took a closer look at the packaging. It struck me as being thoroughly dated, sexist, and, above all, homophobic! I understand that the survey was aimed at women, few of whom enjoy encountering stubble while kissing. Count me among those. BUT, the line of cartoon ponytailed ” female” suitors ( which the employment of this brand of razor purports to attract 3X more of) screams 1950′s bobbysoxer cutie coeds, whose main reason for attending college might be to find a husband. Note to Gillette: millennial women come in many shapes and colors, do not all wear skirts and Barbie ponytails, and are not necessarily inclined to flock to the same cleanshaven young man in a harem like bevy. The 71% more double takes are more likely to come from the shaver’s own reflection in the mirror, as he checks himself, or they could just as easily come from another male. ( Texas does not reflect the desires of the rest of the world outside)
    Lipstick stains? from millennials? Silly.