“I don’t want to tell people what we've done. We'd rather be caught doing it”
Marketing director for Gillette’s global brand franchise, Francesco Tortora knows more than most what it takes to build success within the male grooming sector.
Following our panel appearance together at Millennial 20/20’s New York instalment, we sat down with Francesco to discuss the past, present and future of Gillette and male grooming – and why working fast and lean is the key to spotting rich brand opportunities.
Rare Design: Previously, we discussed the importance of a brand having ‘meaning’ to survive and thrive. What is Gillette’s meaning, and has this changed since the business’ founding?
Francesco Tortora: King Camp Gillette, our founder, was a salesman, and in his mind he believed there must be a better way to get yourself shaved than having to go to the barber or have someone do it for you. That's why he had this idea of a disposable blade that you can change after use and use by yourself. In a certain sense, he was trying to change the game and build a business in a category that didn’t exist. With our razors, everybody can shave; not only those that have access to a barber or can afford a barber.
This mission of taking care of how guys look and allowing everyone to have pride in their appearance is something we have carried on ever since. Today we like to articulate our mission and purpose as grooming the next generation. This is not only about the physical grooming of a person but also because we believe grooming is an act that prepares you in a small but meaningful way every day or every time you do it.
To this end, I think there is a continuity between King Camp’s ethos and today’s. We want to give that opportunity to more guys, more frequently, in a more practical way. Today, guys’ needs are evolving, and we believe that our job is to give them tools so that they can groom themselves and groom the next generation. Looking forward with optimism pervades our thinking, which was very much at the heart of our founder.
He said, famously, that we'll stop making razor blades when we can't keep making them better. Not only did King Camp want to find a solution for beards, but in his mind the sky was the limit. Everything is possible. We will make razors better, more portable, more accessible; we'll give customers the most exclusive one, the cheapest one. There is always an opportunity to do better.
I think that’s what it means to grow, as a business. Today we are in a world where the definition of masculinity – of what is a man or a good man – has changed. I like to think of it in terms of a metaphor. Where masculinity has gone from being a ladder – where you start in one place and go up one step at a time and the road is very clear and very straight – today the metaphor of a tree is more appropriate. You’ve got to start somewhere and follow some branches which don’t necessarily point up. Sometimes they are lateral; sometimes they are backwards. In fact, it doesn’t matter where you end up: what matters is the journey you take.
In that context, that's why we talk about grooming guys; because it's all about preparing yourself and being ready for all that life throws at you and what you throw yourself into.
Rare Design: What are the major challenges grooming brands will face over the next five years?
Francesco Tortora: I think there are various challenges. I can see there are opportunities and challenges linked to the fact grooming is becoming more and more a choice and less of a need.
Because it was a need before, shaving was always considered as a chore. The reality is you can argue that makeup is a chore for women, but actually it's a ritual they have defined. I think making sure grooming becomes a choice and a ritual more than a chore is one of the most important challenges we face, in a context where guys don't have to do it. It's a matter of them wanting to do it.
This will come from a combination of opening up the space through more experimentation and thinking about facial hair as the guy's makeup; but also by providing them with potentially unexpected areas of performance that go beyond shaving closer of more comfortably.
That is one challenge and, I think, one of the biggest ones. As a category, I compare it to the inverse path that telephone companies have taken. Back in the day, telephone companies were monopolies. In their advertising they sought to build a category. They would tell people how important it is to call home; to talk to people you love and give meaning to the act of making a call.
Today, their promotions are all about how cheap, fast and reliable their calls are, making them a commodity. In turn, we’ve seen a loss of meaning and value in the idea of the phone, as those phones do more than just allow people to talk to each other. It's not enough that I have to open my iPhone because then, in reality, I'm attached to Facebook regardless of my network provider. Businesses compete to play the game of lower prices, less hassle. A phone is a phone is a phone, a blade is a blade is a blade. The more you drive this habit, the more you drive the commodification of your brand.
We believe in a combination of what Rare Design calls hard and soft power. There are a tonne of things we could do to make shaving as enjoyable as any of the other beauty categories for girls and women, including turning the act into a ritual, or the only 'me' moment guys get. I believe in giving a bit more meaning to these elements; trying on one side to turn these into a ritual, and driving meaningful innovation that guys see and appreciate, to avoid this turning into a battle around price.
Rare Design: That's interesting to think about that in terms of hard and soft power. Here at Rare, we talk about hard and soft power strategies for brands. Hard power refers to product development and changes to distribution models, whereas soft power shifts are changes to brand, tone of voice and visual creative.
For a long time Gillette has focused on product innovation; hard power development. How important is soft power to the Gillette brand?
Francesco Tortora: I'll tell you that the reality is that Gillette always thrives when both of these play at full force.
Every time Gillette only relied on innovation or only relied on soft power, it stumbled or it stalled. I actually believe there has been an over-investment into the hard element, driven a little bit by the DNA of the company. This is a company that has put a lot of pride and personal investment in developing products. People criticise us, but it's actually something we are very proud of: The invisible difference that makes all of the difference. It’s something we do best, taking a lot of time and money to find. The space between the blades that gives you the best comfort; allowing hair to pass through in a controlled way: these requires technological prowess we thrive in.
The reality is that all innovations must have a bigger meaning, and a moment when this company thrived most was, for example, when we launched The best a man can get campaign at the end of the 80s. This was the Sensor launch: a razor with blades mounted on springs. The definition of masculinity at that time was probably a little bit more like the ladder: You've got the good job; you've got the girl; you've got the friends and sport. Today, these look like clichés. Then, they defined the period.
I think that definition is today shaped by where we shop, and by branding campaigns and communication, but there are a tonne of other things we can do that are not even a part of the communication piece. The best way to communicate today, especially with millennials, is to do stuff with the right intent. I always say to everybody that I don’t want to tell people what we've done. We'd rather be caught doing it. I’d rather be caught having done something that hasn’t necessarily made the most business sense in the short term, but shows the good intent behind grooming the next generation.
Some of our top projects include a razor launched in India for people who have access to very little water, to some of the smaller projects that we are testing right now targeted at underserved consumers. These are not advertised, by design, but show our practical commitment to groom the next generation. This means yes, we do have to make the money to fund this innovation, but this doesn’t mean you don't take care of people that have less. They also have shaving needs.
There are small things we believe are important. One of these, which we did last year and this year for Father's Day, revolves around dads. In the campaign, we don’t say our products are good for dads. Instead, we focused on the need for more inter-generational discussions. A lot of the time, the phone and web cut short human interaction, which in the end is the thing that has seen the biggest advances in world history.
Rare Design: Trying new things on a small scale relies on a startup mentality. Is this kind of agile thinking something Gillette is trying to bring into its own business?
Francesco Tortora: Today, starting small to see how projects work is a lot easier than it was in the past. If it's easier for everybody else, we had better do it first. That said, there is only so much you can test, and the real test is always consumer behaviour.
We inevitably, all of us, lie; lie from the moment we wake up in the morning to the moment we go to bed. We lie to survive, okay, but one of the most evident places where people lie is when you ask them their opinions about anything. They lie because of what they think is appropriate to say; they lie because of their current experience. The only time you can get really down to it is when you observe their actions, which are the best assertion of what they think.
That's why in many cases, businesses test their product to death and never get anything back for their efforts. They never see the truth. At other times, you believe you have a great idea for a razor and it takes off for a completely different reason. You'll never know until you do it; so that’s what we do.
Today, I think there is more we can do. The reality is that people love not having to think about their razor. It’s bought once a year and has a big sticker price. Every purchase is a pain, but it’s a pain people don’t remember because they do it once a year. What happens, instead, is they forget to buy the right razor. Subscription, therefore, offers a very good solution and is something Amazon brought in early on. But the truth is, this is a proxy. Consumers’ desired experience is not to subscribe to something. Every time you talk about subscription, guys cringe. When you subscribe to cable, or your phone or magazine, it's like my God; I have to pay.
The beauty of subscription is that you don’t have to think about it. Which is the insight we used to say OK, today we have the tools and technology to allow guys to have razors delivered to them when they want it, to their door in a couple of days. You click from your phone, which is in the bathroom, and say get my shave. Otherwise, you’d have to remember a mental note or to make a physical one to remind you to buy a blade next time you go shopping.
That’s today: do we know if it’s going to work? Who knows! We just decided to go and try. The early signs are pretty good because I think people get that ordering is more convenient, and pretty much like going to the store without going to the store. No inconvenience; no extra burden. We could debate until the cows come home, and would never get a real sense of the answer. When we get guys who make their order, that’s the best proof.