If you ever think about how your job stinks, remember the researchers at P&G Beauty. In a building overlooking the leafy, pastoral campus of the Sharon Woods Innovation Center in suburban Cincinnati, they are intently focused on what can only be called armpit science. Some scientists spend the better part of each day talking to men of average attractiveness about how they sweat and smell. Others pore over grainy black-and-white video of underarms, magnified to 200 times normal size, and watch sweat glands up close as they spew out the fluids that grow odor-causing bacteria. In drab laboratories, amid industrial tubs of raw deodorant ingredients and steel counters crowded with beakers and hot plates, they labor over concoctions to plug those pesky pores.
The woman charged with finding the beauty in this olfactory ugliness is Procter & Gamble's global deodorants general manager, Alex Keith. The stylish 41-year-old, a chemical engineer by training, looks too cool to sweat the details of glandular function, and indeed, she still wrinkles her nose at the thought of professional smell testers sniffing men's underarms. But she makes no attempt to glamorize what she does: Her work, she says, essentially involves "getting more share of armpits."
She's pretty good at it. (She also oversees Secret, Old Spice's female counterpart.) Under her watch, Old Spice's U.S. sales have increased by a full third since 2004, but it has been in a pitched battle with Unilever's Axe brand. By combining her scientists' innovation with a fresh spin on the legendary marketing techniques of the $80 billion consumer-products giant, Keith's goal is to fend off her rival and push Old Spice into the pantheon of P&G blockbusters. "I don't see any reason why Old Spice can't become a billion-dollar brand," she says.
Keith has a ways to go. According to independent data compiled by Information Resources Inc. (which excludes fragrances and Wal-Mart purchases), the venerable brand's U.S. sales in all categories totaled about $225 million in 2008. Experts estimate that Wal-Mart adds another 10% to 20%, bringing the rough total to as much as $270 million. Old Spice already leads in men's deodorant sales — what Keith calls its "home category" — with about 25% mar-ket share. And, as Keith points out, "there is still a lot of white space in the category." Last year, men's deodorant accounted for more than $1.2 billion in sales in the United States.
Keith is going after that "white space" with a product that, ironically, promises to eliminate whiteness. Ever Clear, a new antiperspirant-deodorant combo, offers the wetness protection of a "dry solid" without the white waxy residue, and is set to debut around the time you're reading this. (We're sure that the similarity in name to a certain grain alcohol popular with Old Spice's target demo is purely coincidental.) It's partly the product of Keith's relentless focus on getting guys to share their feelings about deodorant — no easy task, considering that most fellas don't know they have feelings about deodorant.
Breaking the ice requires creative measures: She sends her marketing team out to tag along with guys on deodorant-shopping trips. Senior scientist Tim Nolan recently asked a focus group to explain what they didn't like about their current deodorants by composing "good-bye letters" to them. (One subject's letter unfavorably compared his antiperspirant's texture to "the sugar coating on a glazed donut.") He discovered that while most guys wanted the wetness protection that dry, solid antiperspirant sticks offered, many didn't use them because the waxy residue was uncomfortable and left white streaks, or "bar codes," on their clothing.
Armed with this insight, P&G chemist and research fellow David Swaile discovered a means of imbedding liquid molecules of the kind found in "invisible solid" deodorants into the waxy material found in typical antiperspirants. The breakthrough, as Swaile puts it, is akin to "making water not feel wet." Nolan ran the promising new formula through some product demos, which included rubbing it onto black cloth and then studying it under black light, as well as subjecting himself to more armpit porn, scrutinizing tight-focus photos to see how it looked when applied to men's hairy armpits. When Nolan asked his focus group to write "love letters" to the new product, one aspiring poet asked, "Can it really be true, that such a product exists as you? If you're willing to give it a shot, I'll tell my friends to use you a lot."
To help inspire a similar passion for Ever Clear in other consumers, Keith will turn to her partners at the ad firm Wieden + Kennedy, which created the successful campaign playing up Old Spice's "experience." The new strategy, explains Mark Fitzloff, an exec-utive creative director at the agency, is an irreverent spin on the kind of demonstration-based advertising that built many of P&G's 24 billion-dollar brands. Fitzloff will show overly dramatic scenarios that illustrate anti-perspirant residue's potentially disastrous effects — such as whitewashing a date's shoulder when putting an arm around her. "Procter & Gamble depends on inherent brand superiority," says Peter Sealey, a marketing professor at California's Claremont Graduate University, "particularly products that are demonstrably superior on TV." In the same way that Tide can make a bedsheet appear whiter on TV, P&G will now try to convince young guys that Old Spice deodorant isn't just cool, it's better.
Ever Clear joins High Endurance, Pro Strength, and Red Zone as recent Old Spice brand extensions, and Sealey warns that that could be trouble. "Marketers mistake more for better," he says. "As you extend a product line, at some point, it ceases to stand for anything."
The caveat isn't lost on Keith, but she holds that "Old Spice has broad megabrand legs." And with deodorant, she knows perfectly well what Old Spice stands for, thank you very much. "Friends often ask me, 'You're a woman selling Old Spice to all these young guys — how do you do it?' " she says. "I know that as a guy, you can have great hair and great clothes, but if you stink, game over." It may be armpit science, but it's not rocket science.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.