cant-buy-me-likeSecret is no secret. It’s been around since 1956, the first deodorant marketed exclusively to women. Through most of its history, the advertising themes have focused on product attributes, most famously: “Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman.”

In the past 20 years, truth has increasingly validated hype, with technological advances yielding more antiperspirant efficacy with a sheerer –and therefore more invisible – application.

But throughout its history, advertising has frequently employed slice-of-life narratives getting to the consumer’s confidence. With Secret, you can be active, get nervous, wear silk, lift your arms and generally live your life without fear of god-awful embarrassment over the fact that like everyone else on earth, you sweat.

Product efficacy and consumer confidence. Not a bad combination. Yet Procter began losing confidence in the relevance of the positioning. “It was always about key issues of the day and inspiring women to be fearless,” says Kevin Hochman, brand manager for skin care and personal care at Procter & Gamble North America.

But somehow, around late 2004, the brand stewards sensed that the theme was getting dated. “We walked away,” Hochman says. “We thought, women are empowered and maybe this isn’t so relevant. That was a mistake.”

Marketing shame

The shift was especially ill timed, as the all-natural trend left some younger women gravitating away from aluminum-based antiperspirants and toward body sprays and body washes. As Secret’s growth flattened, the marketer focused ever more on the product’s attributes and ever less on the underlying brand promise of underarm empowerment.

One 2006 campaign asked women to divulge secrets on the web (“My fiancé thinks I’m eight years younger than I actually am”). And even when “confidence” was the theme of a typical Procter & Gamble slice-of-life commercial – as it was when the “clinical-strength” line extension was launched in 2007 – the confidence was juxtaposed against shame.

Yeah, the happy bride is dancing uninhibitedly at her wedding, her arms raised above her. But the poor bridesmaids are afraid to even reach for the tossed bridal bouquet, lest their soggy pits be exposed. This ad wasn’t made in 1966. It aired in 2007. (The breakthrough, such that it was, came with the first images in American advertising of actual underarm sweat. Somehow the republic survived.)

A vintage Secret antiperspirant ad. Image by Christian Montone via Flickr.

A vintage Secret antiperspirant ad. Image by Christian Montone via Flickr.

Purpose-driven marketing

Through 2008, the novelty of “clinical-strength” Secret helped boost the brand, but within a year or so that effect eventually waned. The new segment was very expensive and the economy was getting very bad. But in two other respects, the timing was most propitious.

For one thing, top management were beginning to loudly voice confidence in the power and inevitability of purpose-driven marketing. “We expect every one of our brands to be guided by a purpose that defines how it uniquely touches and improves lives,” Marc Pritchard, global marketing and brand building officer, declared to the Association of National Advertisers. “We think of it as the soul of the brand.”

Pritchard’s thinking bears more than a passing mention here, because his is not a privately held business populated entirely by true believers fresh out of a Save Our Rainforests protest or Burning Man. It is the largest advertiser in the world with a market cap of $175 billion and 24 $1 billion-plus brands. It is conservative in all it does.

Operating from purpose, Prichard told his colleagues:

means changing from marketing to people (so we get them to do what we want them to do, which is buy our products) to serving people with our brands to make their lives better. And that can take many forms. Of course, it’s better products, but it’s also non- product services. It’s entertainment that brings people together and it’s acts of kindness and generosity that [make] them part of the larger community […] when we focus on serving people, we uncover human insights – not product insights. Deep human insights that define the essence of human behavior. They represent universal human truths, motivations and tensions that must be solved by the benefits of our brands.

“And from these insights,” he added, very significantly, “we create big ideas.”

This excerpt, adapted for Sparksheet, is from Can’t Buy Me Like: How Authentic Customer Connections Drive Superior Results. Published by Portfolio/Penguin. Copyright (c) Bob Garfield and Doug Levy, 2013.