With Super Bowl 50 now in the books, the debate over the best commercials of the game has taken center stage.
Budweiser and Hyundai were two of the biggest winners, many commentators agreed, but the losers of the night weren't just the companies whose ads flopped but those that found themselves the target of competing commercials. After all, companies buying Super Bowl ad time hoped to make a lasting impression on viewers, and perhaps no company was a bigger target than Procter & Gamble(PG 0.64%). At least five ads took direct aim at the consumer products giant's core brands, underscoring the assault that P&G has found itself under lately.
The newest of P&G's rivals, and among the smaller brands to advertise in the Super Bowl, was Dollar Shave Club, the upstart razor maker that is valued at $615 million and has become the No. 2 razor seller by volume in just a few short years.
The spot featured a talking dirty razor, implying that users shouldn't be afraid to change to a new set of blades just to save money. Price savings has been the mantra of challengers to Gillette, Procter & Gamble's leading razor brand, as razor blades have historically been a high-margin business.
Dollar Shave Club wasn't the only razor company to pitch itself in the big game. Edgewell Personal Care's Schick also jumped into the mix with an ad, depicting its own Hydro razor in hand-to-hand combat with a competing product.
Since launching its own subscription-based shaving club in June, Gillette has clawed back some market share, but Dollar Shave Club remains the clear leader in online sales with 54% of the market. In other words, this ad war is only going to heat up.
Unilever, in a bid to refocus its Axe brand, undermined the traditional tropes of muscles and good looks in male grooming ads and instead celebrated the individual, closing with the phrase: "Who needs some other thing when you've got your thing?"
Axe makes a range of products, including deodorant body spray, body wash, and hair gel. It competes most directly with P&G's Old Spice.
Colgate, meanwhile, went a different route with a poignant message on saving water. The narration-free ad interwove shots of a man leaving the faucet on as he brushed his teeth with people in other countries washing fruit, filling up a bowl, and cupping water to drink. The ad included a message encouraging viewers to save water, "Please turn off the faucet #everydropcounts." The use of cause marketing is rare in Super Bowl ads, but this one seemed to be well-received, sparking conversation on water conservation in the process.
Finally, a 15-second spot from little-known detergent brand Persil called out P&G's leading Tide brand directly, touting a leading consumer testing publication that ranked Persil ahead of Tide and No. 1 overall. That publication was Consumer Reports, which noted that Tide has historically been at the top of the list more than any other detergent, but Persil ProClean Liquid 2-in-1 beat the reigning Tide Ultra Stain Release by a decent margin. Persil, a well-known brand in Europe, is making a push in the U.S., scoring a deal with Wal-Mart, which agreed to be the exclusive retailer of the high-end detergent. The deal shows Wal-Mart's desire to break P&G's lock on the laundry market, where it controls 60% of all sales in the U.S. and 85% of profits, both records for P&G. Doing so would give the retailer greater negotiating leverage.
It wasn't all bad news for the Tide-maker, however. Procter & Gamble scored with an ad of its own for its Pantene brand. The ad showed NFL players doing their daughters' hair, and it appealed to many viewers. However, a slogan implying that girls who spend quality time with their dads are stronger rubbed some people the wrong way.
With about two dozen billion-dollar brands, Procter & Gamble's portfolio is seen as a key strength for the company, but it also makes P&G vulnerable to a wide range of competitors, both established multinationals like Unilever and Colgate and upstarts like Dollar Shave Club and Persil. By democratizing commerce, the Internet is helping springboard Dollar Shave Club and other P&G challengers to prominence, and it also ensures that those Super Bowl ads will live long past their 30 seconds of game-day air time.
P&G's volume sales fell 2% in its most recent quarter, declining in four out of its five product categories and finishing flat in the fifth. The company has managed to improve its financial performance through price increases, cost-cutting, and share buybacks, but as the Super Bowl shows, the consumer goods empire represents a rich target, and the onslaught against it is going to continue.