Brands court the modern man

How companies that once contributed to images of toxic masculinity are trying to be part of the solution.

GilletteThis story originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of strategy.

Many marketers will remember this year’s Super Bowl as the one when Gillette added “toxic masculinity” to their vocabulary. Its “We Believe” ad examined the ills the epidemic causes, calling on men to set a better example for future generations.

Some consumers have bristled at brands critiquing masculinity. But many of those companies helped establish the cultural images associated with masculinity today, and therefore have a responsibility to fix it. Grooming brands have warmed up to “modern” portrayals of masculinity, and recent examples show the creative strategy is here to stay.

“If you are your dad’s masculinity brand, that’s a problem, because you are probably not the same kind of man as your dad,” says Max Valiquette, CSO at Toronto’s Diamond. “There’s an appetite for something different. We’re consuming so much more, we get bored. We didn’t need to see another fighter pilot shaving… And there’s a lot to like about the Gillette ad, but I don’t think it’s the only way to go about it.”

Last fall, Schick created its purpose-driven “The Man I Am” platform, showing men of different body types shaving in a bathroom, before revealing their true selves as they beat-box and dance in home videos. A Canadian adaptation this year showed former NHL tough guy Gary Roberts and current Toronto Maple Leafs player Zack Hyman talking about how hockey impacts family life and fear of leaving the game.

“Millennial men define themselves through their personality, not their gender,” says Christine Jew, brand manager for Schick at parent company Edgewell. “They accept all types of men and celebrate all facets of masculinity. They understand there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ type of man.”

Unilever’s Axe spent the last four years “growing up” as part of a strategic shift. In April, a Canadian spot showed Toronto Raptor Kyle Lowry sharing his brother’s advice to “stay chill” instead of reacting negatively during embarrassing moments from his youth. The ad had the brand telling its young, impressionable target that healthy confidence is something that’s built over time, and not tied to their ability to seduce women (as it previously had).

And the “Future Dads” platform from Dove’s Men+Care shows dads emotionally talking about parenting in a push to normalize paternity leave. Beyond a non-traditional portrayal of openness in men, it connects to a larger societal issue.

“There’s a huge difference between calling out the toxicity of traditional masculinity and showing [it] in a non-toxic way,” Valiquette says. “Gillette is saying ‘This is a problem.’ Axe and Schick aren’t talking about the problem [or] claiming to fix it, but they also don’t embrace the toxicity.”

gilletteAfter making a bold statement in January, Gillette released a more understated look at the portrayals of modern masculinity. A video by Grey Canada was posted to social channels in late May, featuring a transgender man learning to shave from his father, a formative moment between a dad and son.

Concerns about “backlash” against Gillette ended up being unfounded – parent co. P&G said sales following the ad were “in line with pre-campaign levels,” and even went up for its subscription service. Having P&G’s flagship shaving brand make that bold statement also fits into its broader marketing priorities. After years of cutting prices for many of its brands to compete for value-conscious consumers, the company has been slowly raising its prices again – joining other CPG co.’s in betting consumers will pay more for brands with a strong, trusted identity.