If you were a teenage boy in the early 2000s, there’s a good chance you wore Unilever‘s Axe Body Spray at some point.
“The idea that you spray this on and you get the girl is sort of nonsense, really. I mean, they know it, we know it. … So why don’t we just kind of play to that?” said John Hegarty, founder of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, a London-based advertising firm that worked with Axe between 1994 and 2017.
Axe Body Spray entered the U.S. market in 2002, and within a decade of its arrival, Unilever was bringing in nearly half a billion dollars in domestic sales for Axe products, according to estimates from market research firm Kline & Company.
But as the brand took off, its offerings rapidly expanded as it was churning out new lines of body wash and hair care.
“They launched all different other products that took the advertising dollars away from the body spray itself. So it never really grew in the way that it should have,” said Ann Gottlieb, a fragrance consultant for Axe since 1992.
The brand’s messaging also shifted in 2016, when the product’s marketing went from risqué, provocative advertisements seen in the early 2000s to a campaign that was focused on gender and sexuality.
“They were moving the needle maybe a little too far in terms of the brand pivot. That’s a lot for a brand with that strong a DNA in the marketplace to achieve in that short period of time,” said Stephan Kanlian, chairperson for the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Cosmetics and Fragrance Graduate Program.
U.S. total product sales fell around an estimated $150 million between 2012 and 2017, according to Kline & Company.
However, the brand is still the No. 1 men’s deodorant worldwide, selling $1.7 billion worth of deodorant and body spray in 2022, according to Euromonitor International.
In 2023, the company introduced a new line of fragrances called the fine fragrance collection, hoping to change the middle school locker stigma that surrounds the brand.
Unilever declined to be interviewed for this story.
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