Brand Refresh: The Good, the Bad, and the Smelly

Every country in the world is chock-full of smelly brands.

Old brands that have somehow survived the test of time by having no direct competition, by a sense of nostalgia, by price-gauging, or other means, sometimes boggle the imagination at how they have managed not to die. An example of that from the US market is Old Spice.

Old Spice has been around for a very long time. Since 1938, in fact. The brand’s allure had become musty and clichéd. It had become known as “your grandfather’s brand” and the smell would even remind you of him. Moreover, Old Spice became the butt of jokes among adolescents and pre-teens transitioning into the need for deodorants. By definition and in a quite literal way, Old Spice became a smelly brand.

If all this is true, then we must now account for the fact that Old Spice claims two of the top ten slots in men’s deodorant in the Old Spice - 2 of the top 10US.[1]

Had nothing else been done, by 2008 the brand might have been left to languish on the shelves and eventually die a natural death of due to terminal indifference. But that was when the Old Spice refresh was kicked off with the “Swagger” campaign.

According to Megan O’Neill writing for AdWeek, “Old Spice Swagger…completely transformed the face of the Old Spice brand, as well as their customers.” The brand decided to use its disadvantages to their advantage. They took the old-fashioned feel of the brand and stepped it up a notch, using the word “swagger” (a word that had been removed from popular use since the 1950s with any kind of positive connotation) to shift gears.

‘They gave [Old Spice] a new, awesome name and a new awesome attitude – Swagger. In the webinar earlier this week, Britton Taylor explained that Old Spice “wanted a name with some cultural currency and attitude. ‘Swagger’ oozes confidence and is something that all guys want to possess.” The name was perfect. In fact, once they came up with the name about 75% of the work was done – the rest of the campaign just flowed naturally from there.

The campaign would be all about how Old Spice gives guys “swagger” – transforming them from nerdy wimps into strong, manly studs. The campaign billed the new scent, Swagger, as “The Scent That Makes a Difference,” and hit the web running.’[2]

This fundamental change in the language of how the brand communicated its values was immediately successful for the anachronistic deodorant brand. Instead of the steady dull thump of family, father to son, and fishing boats, Old Spice was banging out a new and hip beat. The new consumers like to swagger, to preen, to show off. They were doing it in earnest or as a self-deprecating ironic gesture, but they were doing it. Ad agency Wieden + Kennedy, the creative source of this campaign, threw in a website and a few major celebrities as endorsers, using their younger years to show when the “swagger” started:

Old Spice released a series of print and television ads featuring Brian Urlacher of the Chicago Bears, LL Cool J, and NASCAR driver Tony Stewart. The ads showed these huge celebrities as young men. Before they started using Old Spice Swagger they were nerds without confidence. Swagger made them the confident, popular, and awesome men they are today.[3]

Swagger renews the old brandWhat had really happened to Old Spice? It had become relevant again. The branded language and approach adopted by the brand and its ad agency changed it from a fall-back position to a go-to choice. All of which was made possible by shifting away from the tried-and-true. As a product, precious little had changed. The scent was the same familiar one, although regularly updated as Proctor and Gamble assiduously do for all of their brands. The packaging was the same familiar fire engine red. The logo was the same sailing ship. The logotype was the same cursive script. But the identity of the brand had changed in a very real way. It worked its way thought old to vintage to hipster to cool in the blink of an eye.

As a successful brand refresh program, this is a shining example of how to get the job done. Capitalizing on its years of being a familiar yet somewhat shunned brand, it came back to resonate with new demographics.

In this example, it is clear that before any advertising campaign or marketing push could move the old deodorant off the shelves, a massive rebranding had to be instituted first. The brand had to find its new language and new identity. In essence a new brand had been built on the foundations of the old one. This campaign, now ongoing for nine years, has revitalized Old Spice and given it new future that it can look forward to.

Can’t Touch This

Whether or not a brand can push past being a smelly and old-fashioned brand is a matter of keeping your eye on the ball. Companies like Kellogg’s boast many ancient brands. Its most known brand, Corn Flakes (1895), was brought to market by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. His idea?

Eating Corn Flakes would reduce masturbation.

Corn Flakes vs. the libido?This was a main theme in his writings.[4] If the Kellogg Company in 2017 is by and large silent on what you do in the privacy of your own room, the essential identity of the brand remains the same. It is about a healthy start to the day, it is about attention to what you eat. It is about self-care. What has changed in the intervening 122 years is the rationale. Kellogg truly believed that masturbation was detrimental to your health – even evil – and that was the rationale for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. The company today has a fully new rationale for buying and eating Corn Flakes, one that is quite personal (“I care about myself”), appealing to our individual feelings about healthy eating.

But perhaps not quite as personal as it used to be…

Another good example is Coke. Coca-Cola was introduced as a medicinal tonic in 1886 (including a healthy snort of cocaine), allegedly with the intention of helping its founder kick a morphine dependency. The tonic’s dose of cocaine, from the “Coca” leaf, and caffeine, from the “Kola” nut, gave rise to its name.

In the beginning, the product was genuinely meant to be medicinal. Coca-Cola’s original founder was Confederate Colonel John Pemberton. Pemberton was wounded in the Civil War and “became addicted to morphine, and he began a quest to find a Early commercial narcoticssubstitute for the problematic drug. The prototype Coca-Cola recipe was formulated at Pemberton’s Eagle Drug and Chemical House, a drugstore in Columbus, Georgia, originally as a coca wine.”[5] By 1903 the cocaine had been removed from the formula and the transformation from medicinal to refreshing tonic had already begun.

The two brands bear the same names today, and the products and their identities remain largely unchanged over the past one hundred years. The means of expressing them and their secondary rationales, however, have changed radically. Today’s Corn Flakes continue to claim health benefits, and today’s Coke is still about feeling good. In the same way, Old Spice still about an identity with a heritage. These brands have understood their core identity and held to it with determination, something that is very likely a factor in the longevity.

The main reason a brand engages is on the personal level – we want to feel good, to be healthy, and to be attractive – and not on the logical reasons and justifications for it. In this way, the brands survive and thrive because their core identity still speaks directly to the consumer about his or her needs. Not about the brand’s needs. Or even their founders’ ideas.

This test can be applied with all brands that surround us. Ask yourself: is this phone part of me? Or is it only a replaceable tool? Is this cigarette integral to my being? Or can I kick the habit? Is this mayonnaise worth travelling across town to buy because it is mine? Or can another one take its place on my sandwich?

And if your answer is impassioned, you have yourself a brand.




[1] “Leading deodorant brands in the United States in 2016”,, July 2017.

[2] “How Old Spice Swaggerized Their Brand And Men Everywhere”, Megan O’Neill, AdWeek, July 22, 2010

[3] Op.cit.

[4] Plain Facts for Old and Young: Embracing the Natural History and Hygiene of Organic Life, John Harvey Kellogg, 1887.



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