Gillette’s odd promo delivers some very weird results

Source: Gillette
Nov 02, 2017

Steve Rowen

Through a special arrangement, what follows is a summary of an article from Retail Paradox, RSR Research’s weekly analysis on emerging issues facing retailers, presented here for discussion.

A few weeks ago, my 80-year-old mother received an unsolicited package addressed to her from Gillette with two things inside: a razor and a note reading “Happy 18th Birthday!”

Why would someone send an octogenarian a birthday present for an 18-year old?

When she told my sister the story, it got weirder. A few weeks before the razor arrived, her oldest had turned 18. Was it for him somehow? And if so, why was it delivered well after his birthday?

My nephew has never lived at my mother’s address. But after much brain-racking, my sister came up with a theory: my father passed suddenly away nearly 17 years ago. With a newborn at the time, she stayed with my mom for a couple of weeks and bought a crib for him.

It turns out this isn’t an oddball story, after all.

A little searching on Gillette’s own website shows that, “My friend got a razor from Gillette for his 18th birthday – why didn’t I get one for mine?” is a frequently asked question. Gillette said the program’s recipients are “randomly chosen from the personal data we already hold, which is likely to have been gathered from a number of sources.”

Googling “Gillette Sends Razor for 18th Birthday” also shows the promotion has been running nationwide for at least 11 years and seems to backfire as often as it works. Thread after thread detail bumbled attempts to get a razor to a male on his 18th birthday. Some are from 16-year-old males, some are from 50-year-old women.

I’d love to see that stats on how often this works. Sure, razors are expensive and a low-expense gesture that gains a lifetime of blade purchases one out of every few times may well justify the cost of the missteps.

Based on my family’s experience (and what a simple Google search reveals), I’d say it acts as a real-world case study to support one of our most common pieces of advice: Be creative and take risks! But it helps to know who you’re talking to before you start talking.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What lessons should be learned about data mining and targeting from the incident related in the article? Are the benefits from such data mining efforts worth the risk of mishaps?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
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"It seems like the perfect excuse to include something in the package that says “Sorry if we got your birthday wrong, but enjoy the free razor..."

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27 Comments on "Gillette’s odd promo delivers some very weird results"

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Dr. Stephen Needel

This points out a weakness of Big Data – that data quality is of critical importance. That said, I doubt many of those who get a razor in error are going to never use Gillette again, so the risk/cost of a mishap is probably minimal.

Charles Dimov

Taking a contrarian perspective … I agree that this is a tough program to run and get right consistently. I don’t envy the Gillette Marketing team tasked with this. Yet, the error is fairly minor. It is a Gillette sent to the wrong person, or someone in their 80s (who is female on top of it all). The story inspired a story within the family, and ultimately an article in RetailWire. Hmmm … not bad. I have to wonder whether a minor mishap may have helped promote their name just a tiny bit further.

Arguably, the world knows Gillette. This wouldn’t work for a lesser name brand. However, it seems to me that the risk/reward ratio was favorable.

Ken Lonyai

It’s hard to analyze the value or lack thereof of this promotion without the missing data on conversion and lifetime value of customers to Gillette. Beyond that, it’s a pseudo-clever idea that may or may not work. Presumably, if Gillette persists with the practice for 11 years or more, they see a benefit. Then again, big corporations don’t change direction quickly and this might be some leftover campaign that no one inside has the guts to question.

Zel Bianco

Big Data is very rarely perfect. The benefits/results usually justify the imperfections.

Sterling Hawkins

It’s definitely a cost/benefit analysis that I think Gillette got right. The buzz around both the successful and unsuccessful surprises generates a conversation where there is little downside. The cost/benefit balance shifts based on the product, culture, etc. so it’s good to continually reevaluate these things.

Mark Ryski

There are no new lessons here — direct marketing missteps are simply unintended outcomes of direct marketing. However, what has changed is the massive (and not entirely reliable) amount of data on consumers that’s available to marketers today. And while data mining tools and techniques have become more sophisticated, these advantages are offset by the enormous breadth and depth of data that when mashed together inevitably produce strange outcomes, like the one in the Gillette example. The missteps may be awkward, but it’s the ROI that drives the initiatives and as long as they remain sufficiently positive, marketers will continue to do it.

Gib Bassett

This is a form of lifestage marketing. Doing this well requires a plan to engage with your consumer and their household on a routine basis. You need to plan to collect and update their data and provide incentives and compelling reasons for your consumer to volunteer this information. You can of course infer or predict circumstances, but the real question here isn’t about data mining or analytics — it’s about “what’s your consumer engagement and insight strategy?”

Art Suriano

I’m surprised to learn that Gillette would continue such a program with so many mishaps. With today’s technology, there are simple methods to stay on top of customer data. The concept is a good one, but it’s important that real potential customers receive the gift. I think Gillette needs to go back to the drawing board and figure out a better way of finding out who should receive their gift. If done correctly, it should prove to be successful, but at present, it sounds like they are wasting a lot of dollars that they should be spending on programs that will help the company succeed.

Bob Phibbs

One wonders what the difference is if it is targeted or not as the results are like a coin toss. Furthermore, if a new CMO had done this instead of Big Data, would it be looked at as matter-of-factly?

Meaghan Brophy

This is a super weird and confusing promo. And it sounds like Gillette is well aware of how often it backfires. But 11 years is a really long time to hang onto an idea that doesn’t work. At best, Gillette gets a new lifelong customer when someone gets that free razor on his or her 18th birthday. At worst, someone gets a confusing package. Does that mean that person will never buy Gillette again? Probably not. Who knows, they might even enjoy the free razor they got by mistake. When it comes to using Big Data for promotions, as long as the retailer is sending out free products, how wrong can it really go?

Seth Nagle

Maintaining a CRM database is a 24/7 job and too often companies put in bad data or don’t keep up with the maintenance and create poor queries that do more harm than good for their marketing efforts as mentioned above.

Overall I love the marketing concept but, unfortunately, the execution is poor. However the way data is mined today and stored there is no reason why this information can’t be 99.9 percent accurate. Also if this program has run for 11 years it probably needs to be updated as I think more and more kids are starting to shave when they are 16 as compared to 18.

Lastly, regarding consumers’ privacy, I think this marketing effort provides just the right amount of convenience without infringing on the consumer’s privacy too much. We’ve seen some retailers in the past overstep this boundary (“How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did”).

Adrian Weidmann

All content will be data-driven. This fact cannot be disputed, but this story of the Gillette promotion highlights the challenges and misfires of dirty data. Getting data is the easy part, getting and maintaining accurate and clean data is very difficult. Presenting and successfully communicating a relevant story to the correct person is an extremely challenging process. Ask any professional salesperson. While this Gillette promotion is a good one, its cost and misfires won’t harm the Gillette brand. Imagine the power of the promotion when you can get it focused, accurate and consistent. Gillette has an opportunity to secure Gillette customers for life if they evolve this promotion with new technology and business models.

Steve Montgomery

This is an updated twist on their “give them the razor, sell them the blades” strategy. Yes the promotion may send a razor to the wrong person sometimes, but the cost is low and look at the publicity Gillette gets on the web when it does.

Verlin Youd

Interesting approach and issues. It seems like the perfect excuse to include something in the package that basically says “Sorry if we got your birthday wrong, but enjoy the free razor on us as we are confident it will be a great experience for you too!”

Peter Charness

So the downside of getting a right razor to a wrong customer isn’t so bad … but if it was, say, prenatal vitamins going to the wrong person (remember that one?) the mistake is less forgivable. There should be “learning feedback” from any such promotion that improves the outcomes as it goes along. Maybe with an 11-year-old program the fact that you just can’t teach such an old dog a new trick comes into play.

Molly Nichols

The benefits are definitely worth it — they got an article on RetailWire! Any publicity is good publicity and the fact that they have been doing this for 11 years and do not advertise it is even better. A company secretly, silently sending out 18th birthday presents may be a little creepy, but ultimately, everyone loves free stuff!

Meaghan Brophy

Hi neighbor! Agreed — it’s super weird, but also hard to go wrong with free samples.

Kai Clarke

Numbers, numbers, and more numbers. Gillette needs to get it right before it continues getting it wrong. Assuming that a few wins is OK for all of the costs, just doesn’t make sense. Instead, Gillette should focus on accuracy of their numbers and use their Big Data accumulation accordingly.

Dave Nixon

The question is not just about the data integrity and a bad campaign, but how much attribution data can be analyzed and how many folks become customers. If people that receive the promotion that obviously aren’t the target, will they pass it on to someone who could use the product and possibly become a Gillette brand loyalist?

Just because the promotion is off-target (or is it?) doesn’t mean it isn’t successful.

Craig Sundstrom

I think the lesson here is you get what you pay for. If you have multiple data sets, cross referencing — essentially performing a PI’s work — then you’ll get positive results; if less, then GIGO.

Whether the risks outweigh the benefits, depend, I suppose on how harmless and frequent the errors are. Gillette’s is one time and more amusing than anything else; OTOH, a personal service provider constantly sending you a birthday card on the wrong date, with your name misspelled, would do much to harm their credibility.

Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett
President, Protonik
1 year 10 months ago

Big data (even in it’s new trappings of “AI”) has incredible risk. It’s important to become disciplined about recognizing those risks.

I’ll recommend the book “Weapons of Math Destruction” for deep reading about the risks of algorithms. While the author focuses heavily on social and policy consequences, the fundamental error I see are companies who establish algorithm based programs where they can never get feedback to learn the algorithm accuracy OR retrain the algorithm based on how well it works.

We don’t have to look far to see these errors — the online ads we see should show the weakness that data targeting could bring.

That said, I love sampling. And, in this case, ask the key question: In your grandmother’s case, was the cost of this particular error worth the risk? My guess is it was.

The examples of 18 year olds who didn’t receive razors and were disappointed are the far more damaging to the brand.

James Tenser

Gillette’s 18th birthday promo is reminiscent of the “Hey, you’re having a baby” headline that appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in March 2012.

Based on a book by author Charles Duhigg, called “The Power of Habit,” the article focused on a promotion by Target stores, which used data mining to infer when some of its customers were expecting. For a few families, offers for baby products were a disconcerting surprise.

I remember when my stepson received a free razor in the mail about a decade ago. As a marketer, I found it more amusing than creepy. But this type of life stage promotion should be implemented with care, as the baby promotion proved.

One further thought relates to Gillette’s recent competitive response to shaving subscription services like Dollar Shave Club. Since some personal grooming habits can be enduring, putting a razor handle in the hands of a young person at a pivotal moment may be more important than ever.

Ricardo Belmar

The risks with big data will always come down to data integrity. If the quality of your data is poor, then you’re results will be equally poor. However, if they’ve been running this promo for 11 years, they must clearly have some revenue data that shows it’s been successful despite any missteps like the ones highlighted in the article. It doesn’t take many sales wins to justify such a marketing program and call it successful!

chris brown

I received a Gillette razor in the 1990s for my 18th birthday. I have been buying replacement blades ever since. Even when I upgrade to a new razor I still stay with the brand.

Big Data and personalization are not a new trend. Local stores have been personalizing their messages since they were created. When a big brand can reach a person at the right time and with an authentic message the relationship can last decades.

As Bezos and his minions get ever better at cracking personalization, brands and retailers will have to work even hard to keep data fresh and their message authentic.

Michael La Kier

Maybe this is just an odd way to clean up their database?

Christopher P. Ramey

Don’t bet against Gillette. We see the mistakes and oddities whereas they see the final results. 11 years in should tell us that something is working.

Paul Donovan

Although this is a direct marketing campaign discussion it does highlight the broader issue of promotions and their lack of efficiency overall. Many studies have shown over the years that the majority have no ROI. In this era of digital transformation there should be more focus on success versus activity.

On another side note, it’s interesting that the shave disrupting force, Dollar Shave Club, was already swept up by Unilever. It seems to me that there needs to be more competition in this space to make the blades less costly…!

"When it comes to using Big Data for promotions, as long as the retailer is sending out free products, how wrong can it really go?"
"Big data (even in it’s new trappings of “AI”) has incredible risk. It’s important to become disciplined about recognizing those risks."
"It seems like the perfect excuse to include something in the package that says “Sorry if we got your birthday wrong, but enjoy the free razor..."

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