Surprise Hits: The 'Axe effect' promises to attract women -- and sales dollars

Who would have thought that young men would finally buy into the idea that smelling good and engaging in proper grooming could attract the opposite sex?

The Axe brand of grooming products -- body spray, deodorant sticks, roll-ons, antiperspirants, aftershaves, shower gels, shampoo -- has capitalized on that novel idea since Unilever (UL), the British/Dutch consumer goods giant, introduced Axe in France in 1983. Axe got a tremendous boost in 2003 when Unilever launched it in the U.S. and Canada with slick, humorous, suggestive marketing that promised confidence and sex appeal to geeky men. Axe consumers would miraculously transform the "nice" women in their lives into "naughty" girls who would do your bidding: a supposed phenomenon Unilever called "The Axe Effect."

No question the cheeky ad campaign has successfully lured its target audience, 18-to-24-year-old men, to the idea of grooming (with Axe products, of course). To go from having no presence in the crowded American grooming market to becoming one of its top brands is an impressive feat, driven in part by Axe's prominence on Wal-Mart (WMT) shelves. Some traction from the product-oriented "metrosexual" segment has helped build sales. And women buy Axe, too -- for their boyfriends, significant others, and husbands.

But in the end, it's advertising that keeps Axe swinging. WIth an estimated $45 million Axe ad spend in 2007, Unilever captured the men's grooming category, selling $71 million in body spray, dwarfing sales of Proctor & Gamble (PG)'s Gilette Tag ($21 million) and Old Spice body spray ($10 million). Old Spice is still clobbering Axe in the deodorant/antiperspirant category--selling $112 million to Axe's $36 million. But none of Unilever's competitors doubt the Axe Effect anymore.

Matthew Scott is the Investment News Editor for DailyFinance.

Be sure to check out all 20 recent products that became Surprise Hits.

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