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Dettol – back to work

Reading Time: 5 minutes

At the beginning of the month, Dettol launched a ‘back to work’ poster campaign appeared on the tube as part of McCann London’s Keep Protecting series of adverts for Reckitt Benckiser.

The ad campaign had been launched in July with out of home posters like this one celebrating a return to school and video spots.

Dettol keep practicing
McCann London for Reckitt Benckiser

Here’s what Ads of the World had as an explanation of the ad’s rationale:

Lockdown has taught us all to appreciate the little things in life we previously took for granted. As we move out of the lockdown phase, we are all at risk of forgetting the importance and impact of the other little things we have been doing to keep ourselves, our families and our community safe. To remind us of these, Dettol has launched a fully integrated behaviour change campaign ‘Keep Protecting,’ comprising TV, VOD, digital and OOH.

Ads of the World^
McCann London for Reckitt Benckiser

Online conversations featuring Dettol went up 2245%*. In terms of sentiment**:

  • 22% of posts were assessed to be negative in nature
  • 11% of posts were assessed to be positive in nature
  • 67% of posts were assessed to be neutral in nature

Was the Dettol campaign successful?

Was the campaign successful? It depends. At the moment we don’t know how Reckitt Benckiser were assessing the campaign, or what they wanted to achieve.

Reasons for thinking that it was:

  • Dettol would have been top of mind with regards to hygiene thanks to the increased talkability
  • The posters achieved reach far beyond tube travellers; which meant that the ads could be considered to be good value for money. I would presume that they already bought the posters at a considerable discount due to the overall surplus of inventory available in out of home advertising and diminished footfall
  • Any negative impact is likely to be short lived. Discussion peaked on September 3rd, with 3,286 mentions, declined to 414 on September 4th and 96 the following day. Whilst PR experts claimed that Dettol would have a hard time cleaning up after this mess – the quantitative online data tends to suggest otherwise
  • The (small) association of the Dettol ad with the government back to work campaign has potentially alligned Dettol’s personal care and household products to align more closely with the more socially conservative majority outside the big cities. And yet doesn’t seem to have impacted the appeal of the brand abroad in markets like India and Thailand
  • Prior to the ‘back to work’ themed poster, the campaign didn’t seem to have spurred a significant increase in online social discussions at all. Despite the investment in out of home advertising and video. No increased discussion about product usage, or preparing for back to school. The Back To Work poster gave Dettol a brief burst of cultural relevance.
Dettol. Keep Protecting
Data* from Meltwater Social.The mini-peak that occurred on August 24th is unrelated to Dettol marketing efforts ***

Reasons for thinking that it wasn’t:

  • Dettol is already a by-word in the UK when it comes to antiseptic and disinfecting. It is already ‘verbing’ (as Faris Yakob would say) in UK culture. So there would be marginal gains
  • As much as the posters drove talkability, they didn’t seem to drive content on Instagram. So for youth-obsessed brand marketers after millennial Mums and gen-y office workers, it was a bit of a wash out.
  • Awareness and recall probably took a bit of a knock when 203 posts commented about how they thought the Dettol ad (with its prominent logo placement) was part of the UK government’s (currently postponed) back to work ad campaign. This connection has driven some of the media coverage that followed
  • Dettol is likely to remain top of mind for only a short time. Discussion peaked on September 3rd, with 3,286 mentions, declined to 414 on September 4th and 96 the following day. TfL claim that the footfall at the tube is running at less than 30% of usual capacity at the moment
  • The advert spawned memes that were negative to the brand and arguably more culturally relevant
  • The media is likely to have a longer memory than the general public about the Dettol advert. It has placed the brand as a potential football in wider culture wars currently going on. Whilst the brand marketers and advertising agency won’t care, the communications team will likely to have clean up any mess coming to Reckitt Benckiser.
  • The relative furore around the brand, looks bad compared to the results Dettol brand marketing teams have achieved across Asia. For instance Dettol India’s #HandWashChallenge got an astonishing amount of visibility on TikTok. It has achieved over 125.1 billion views across Asia****. More on that campaign here. And the Asian campaigns didn’t cause discord.
  • Only 67 of the 3,870+ mentions associated the Dettol brand with hand sanitiser. Yet a key part of the ad artwork was a silhouette of their personal hand sanitiser bottle
Dettol at Camden Town
Dettol ad in question at Camden Town tube station

The copy:

Hearing an alarm. Putting on a tie.

Carrying a handbag. Receptionists.

Caffeine-filled air. Taking a lift.

Seeing your second family. Watercooler

conversations. Proper bants. The boss’s

jokes. Plastic plants. Office gossip. Those

weird carpets. Face-to-face meetings.

Not having to make lunch. CCing.

BCCing. Accidentally replying-all.

Hearing buzzwords. Leaving early for

a cheeky afternoon in the sun.

Disinfect surfaces we use throughout the

day, so we can do it all again tomorrow.

The little things we do help protect the

little things we love. Keep Protecting.

McCann London for Rickett Benckiser

What about the craft?

My issues with the campaign are more craft-related. The call to action at the bottom made perfect sense when associated with the ‘back to school’ creative iteration of the poster. It makes less sense in the ‘back to work’ and ‘back to commute’ posters, where it has been used unchanged.

The language used in the ‘back to school’ poster would bring back emotive memories of school. The back to work poster evoked the ennui, awkwardness and embarrassing moments that Ricky Gervais skewered quite eloquently in the comedy TV show The Office.

There was also a clear comparison to Renton’s ‘Choose Life’ speech in Trainspotting 1 & 2

Original version from Trainspotting
Updated Trainspotting 2 version

This could have been done so much better. It would still have been controversial – instead much of the abuse has come at the expense of its mediocrity. I suspect that the ad was an unintentional troll.

I am confident that this wasn’t a Dominic Cummings-type of deliberate trolling. It wasn’t designed to stir up brand relevance amongst the general public at the expense of the work-from-home metropolitan elites.

What next for Dettol?

The account planning team and client service staff members at McCann London will be wrapping together much of the reasons and data I’ve suggested above into a positive narrative for the client. If they manage to pull that off; they may even try to use it for award entries next year.

Dettol is a well-loved brand in a relatively low-passion category. Everyone I know has a bottle in the cupboard under the kitchen sink with the cleaning supplies or in the first aid kit. It deserved so much more from the marketers at Reckitt Benckiser (UK) and copywriters at McCann London.

More FMCG-related content here.

Notes and references.

^ VOD means video on demand like Netflix, Hulu in the US, NowTV in Hong Kong or ITV Player in the UK. OOH means out of home. Poster adverts that could be on billboards, electronic Jumbotron type signage, trains, buses or taxis. They can be inside like the London underground (mass transit) posters or out on the street.

*All data quoted from Meltwater Social. I looked at data only in English from the UK. The sources for mentions that I selected were: Twitter, forums, blogs, comments, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit and YouTube.

** Machine derived sentiment, so assume that it is only 65-85% accurate

*** The mini-peak on August 24th was Twitter users sharing a meme about childhood in 1970s Britain. It associated Dettol with a simpler, if more deprived Britain. The original tweet that got things going said:

I was moulded in the 70’s…when ya school jumper was knitted by an intoxicated grandma…when ya bath had Dettol not bubbles…ya phone was a pissy smelling red was tucked in & couldn’t move….fish finger sandwiches & lard fried chips & I’d go back in a heartbeat ❤️

Mark Norris on Twitter

**** TikTok like other social platforms have issues with regards engagement metrics.

UPDATE: September 15, 2020 – YouGov surveyed the British public on each of the concepts in the copy and you can understand from the results why it went over so badly. TL;DR – People really don’t like their alarm, they don’t miss the smell of the office or even eating out for lunch and your work colleagues definitely aren’t your second family (PDF)

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Things that caught my eye this week

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Burger King’s Autopilot Whopper campaign reminds me of a lot of the classic work that Crispin Porter Bogusky have done for Burger King over the years. The Autopilot Whopper is based on the insight that Tesla cars machine learning powered vision system that helps with self driving function mistakes the Burger King logo for a Stop sign.

Autopilot Whopper entertaining with this schadenfreude around Tesla technology. And it also lands the message that the Burger King drive through is as good a place to stop as any.

YouTube announced the winners of its 2020 YouTube Works awards. I would strongly recommend that any brand planners bookmark this in their browser and dip in on a regular basis.

The one that really piqued my interest the most was Hulu’s campaign for live sports that tapped into a growing consumer cynicism around influencers. The sports linkage was using NBA basketball players as the influencers.

The iconic Zero Halliburton briefcase stuffed with cash, that more money is thrown into as ‘Hulu has live sports’ is mentioned riffs on the old McDonald’s initiative. The McDonald’s scheme that paid rappers for name checks on songs and mixtapes. It also tapped into how consumers view influencers.

Public Enemy came back when we most need them. Flavor Flav seems to have patched up his beef with Chuck D. Public Enemy have partnered with DJ Premier to capture the zeitgeist. Black Lives Matter, COVID19 and chaotic leadership feature in State Of The Union (STFU). DJ Premier’s product references earlier Public Enemy works scratching in sounds of early Public Enemy vocals in this track. The beat is more laid back than what one would expect from the Bomb Squad production team. But the Public Enemy fire in the belly is still there.

The step chickens are a meme driven ‘cult’ that have sprung up on TikTok. More accurately they are a directed community. Here’s the founder on how they came about. Their heat has been parleyed in a community for a new app. From a product point-of-view, this means that something like TikTok could lose chunks of its user base IF the step chickens phenomenon was widely and successfully replicated. Given that it was a mix of smarts, happenstance and pure luck it isn’t likely: sorry brands.

German China-focused think-tank MERICS had a thoughtful presentation put together on the Hong Kong national security law. The presentation focused on the impact for the financial services sector. But there similar lessons to be drawn for professional services (accounting, management consultancy, legal firms). And only for a a slightly lesser effect on the strategy and planning functions of creative agencies, or counsel based PR functions.

On reflection, I would be concerned about how some of the creative briefs for China-focused campaigns that I have written would have faired against the Hong Kong national security law. Probably not that well.

What immediately becomes apparent is the implications for quality research into companies and economics won’t meet international standards. Which means more fodder for the likes of Muddy Waters Research LLC. It likely indicates a conscious effort for China to decouple from the international financial system.

The calculus behind the Hong Kong national security law seems to be that the Chinese government think yet another (internal) market for Chinese stocks will be a better deal than the traditional gateway to and from China Hong Kong has provided. I am not sure what this bet will mean. Shenzhen already has a robust stock market by Chinese standards; would China really need Hong Kong? Without the gateway role, Hong Kong would also find it harder to be the point of capital departure from China for high net worth citizens. Dampening capital flight would definitely hold some attraction to the Xi administration.

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Generations or life stages?

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Generations or lifecycles? – Why am I asking this as a question? I’ve had a bit of time to think about consumer behaviour. At the moment you can’t throw a stick without hitting ‘an’ expert in at least one of three generations:

  • Gen-Y or millennials
  • Gen-Z
  • Gen-A

There are older generations that also exist but are mentioned in passing:

  • Gen-X
  • Baby-boomers
  • Silent generation
  • Greatest generation
  • Lost generation

The principle behind this is that each generation would relate to the world in different ways. The implication is that each would require different marketing considerations radically different to anything that has come before.

This lens has a number of results:

  • It encourages marketers to segment markets in certain ways. This facilitates marketing assumptions that are unhelpful
  • It continues marketing focus on a set age group, rather than mining a portfolio for lifetime spend
  • It feeds into a wider marketing culture of ‘disruption’ that can be unhelpful

A history lesson in generations

Generational labels seems to have been started in journalistic essays. These essays tried to convey common experiences. For instance, the sense of loss and dislocation that many felt after fighting in World War 1.

The massive scale of the war meant that armed service touched more people. Over time they have been used to illustrative effect by governments, media and business.


This has meant that generations varied in length. I reviewed a raft of reports and media coverage and found that from Gen X onwards there has even been an variation in definition of what the generational length was.

Over time an industry of journalists and consulting firms has been built up. They point out the various flaws that are supposed to characterise each generation. They point out to company boards how their businesses will be disrupted if they don’t change the way they do business to meet the needs of a generation. This consulting mirrors the way consultants have preached a similar disruption message around different aspects of digital transformation and requires a regular cyclical refresh.

Is this a deliberate ruse? Probably not, but book publishers need books and consultants need to bill. Both of which are insatiable machines that require a ‘new, new thing’.

A final factor to consider in defining generations. Historically the definition of generations has been done with a global north, western-centric lens. If you look at markets like China the differentiation tends to be done in decades: post-90s generation, post-80s generation and so on.

Now, we’re in a time period where the bulk of young people are going to be born in the global south. There is likely to be emigration north for economic opportunity. There is likely to be a corresponding need due to population decline in developed nations. A trip to Tokyo or London already shows the impact of this. From nurses and care home workers to combini staff and baristas; many of the workers are young and foreign. A global north, western-centric lens makes even less sense.

Period trends and generation trends

One of the things that the generations stereotypes can blind marketers to is cross-generational trends within a period of time. One of the stereotypical characteristics that Gen X was labelled with was cynical. Researchers found that Gen X did exhibit higher levels of cynicism than previous groups of 18 – 29 year olds.

But Stanford University took the research one step further and looked the accuracy of this cynical label. What they found was that all generations at that time were exhibiting higher levels of cynicism. It was a period trend rather than a generational one. As a marketer, that might have a huge implication in the way you deliver messages beyond Gen X.

What are the causes of this increase in disaffection? “Media commentators may be right in emphasizing the malaise-inducing effects of ‘historical underdosing’,” the researchers said. The term refers to the belief that history has come to an end, with such institutions as the family and government becoming ever more corrupt and exhausted. It suggests that the great regenerative struggles of the past, such as civil rights and feminism, have already been fought, and all that is left is the winding down and decay of present institutions. “Generation X commentators have, however, glossed over the possibility that such disaffection can just as easily affect older folks as younger ones. If anything, older individuals are especially vulnerable to romanticizing the past and thus becoming disaffected and disengaged with the present,” Grusky said.

Oldsters Get The Gen X Feeling | Sci Gogo

David Grusky, one of the two Stanford sociologists who conducted the study highlighted some great actionable insights that marketers at the time could have used when targeting older market segments. Unfortunately, the Gen X = cynical impression stuck, marketers failed to ask the right questions and got the wrong heuristic.

Grusky’s work and the rise of social media adoption across all age groups does make me wonder about Gen Y’s reputation for narcissistic behaviour – when we could be living in a more narcissistic time.

Unhelpful stereotypes

Stereotypes are heuristics that help us make sense of the world. If we constantly had to analyse everything, we’d have been eaten by large predators whilst in a state of analysis paralysis. In a resting state our brain accounts for 60 per cent of our body’s glucose consumption. So anything that can drive energy efficient actionable insight would make evolutionary sense.

It is unlikely that the modern marketer will be eaten by a pack of ravenous wolves. Yet stereotypical heuristics will make their way into the decision making biases of marketers and their management teams.

Generational labels lend themselves to stereotypes and some of the biggest of them are questionable at best.

  • Boomers are selfish and don’t care about the planet. The publication of Silent Spring by biologist Rachel Carson, could be considered the point at which the modern environmental movement was born. Counterculture figure Stewart Brand lobbied for the release of the iconic ‘blue marble’ whole earth in space photo by NASA which galvanised the environment movement. His Whole Earth catalog series also went on to influence the ‘back to the land’ counterculture movement that sprang out of hippydom. It is no coincidence that groups like Greenpeace and Friends Of The Earth were founded around this time. The first Earth Day happened in San Francisco in 1970. As the counterculture movement went around the world in the early 1970s, so did green-orientated political parties. Without Boomers there wouldn’t have been an environmental movement. Extinction Rebellion (XR) stands on the shoulders of direction action groups like the Greenham Common women and Greenpeace. There is however, anecdotal evidence to suggest that public interest in environmental issues dips during an economic recession and this seems to have been the case after the 2008 financial crisis.
  • Gen X are slackers. They came into a world that had much less economic opportunities than their parents generation. The lack of balance in corporate culture was as unattractive to young Gen Xers as it was to Gen Y and Gen Z first jobbers. As outlined earlier, the move to deregulation and globalisation led to increased cynicism thoughout generations at the time when Gen X entered adulthood. Yet on the flipside, their entrepreneurship has been lauded over the years. Though often that entrepreneurship was forced upon them as industries globalised
  • Gen Y are tech savvy, demand work life balances and are narcissistic in nature. Pew Research indicates that Gen Y do indeed adopt smartphones and tablets, but despite the research article headline of Millennials stand out for their technology use, but older generations also embrace digital life – the difference with Gen X is just three percent in terms of smartphone usage and tablet usage is broadly comparable across generations
  • Gen Z are digital natives and are socially conscious. A classic example of how the truth is more complex and nuanced than this is a recent Kings College London research done into UK attitudes and behaviours towards COVID-19. In it is a group called resistors. They buy into the fake news around the virus, are more likely to violate the lockdown regulations and the majority are in the 16-24 year old category.

Massively parallel cultures

Cultural movements used to align in a serial manner to moments in time and space. There was a serial progression as one cultural movement was created in reaction to; and on the legacy of another.

The nature of media and connection changed with technology. Cheaper air fares mean’t that the world has become much more accessible. I am not saying that it is cheap to fly to Australia, Japan or Brazil – but it is cheaper than it was. In my parents life time in Ireland, families and friends used to hold a wake for members of the community emigrating to the United States or Australia.

The reason for the wake was that the distance was only likely to be bridged by the occasional letter and post-departure it was unlike that they would be seen again.

Media is no longer something that has a time slot like the morning paper, drive time radio or prime time TV; but a membrane that surrounds us. It is in our pocket with us everywhere. We are the media; we have a portable broadcast studio of sorts in our pocket and the means of transmission.

To give you an idea of how revolutionary this concept is, here’s a clip from Back To The Future which was released as a film in 1985. Note the sense of wonder that the 1950s era Doc Brown has when confronted with a 1980s vintage JVC camcorder.

Victor legendary video camera
The iconic JVC GRC-1 camcorder. It is branded Victor for the Japanese domestic market.

The Victor / JVC GRC-1 camcorder had been launched the previous year and was the first all in one VHS camera and recorder – so at the time of the film release this was still cutting edge stuff.

The ‘Mondo‘ series of documentaries shocked and thrilled audiences with practices from around the world that would have seemed fantastical. At least to the average member of the public in the Italy of the directors, or mainstream audiences in the US. As the introduction to the English dub of the film says:

Intro to Mondo Cane

By comparison e-commerce and websites allow us to sample culture and products from around the world. You have access to Korean dramas and beauty tips, vintage Hong Kong movies, Brazilian funk carioca music from the ghettos of Rio De Janeiro or Chinese rap. The web isn’t a perfect memory, content disappears or often never gets seen.

Content is often mediated through algorithms governing e-commerce, search and social platforms. But despite those impediments; culture evolves and morphs in a massively parallel way. Which makes a mockery of generational stereotypes.

Consumption is becoming an attenuated concept

Part of the focus on generations is due to a focus on grabbing early life time spend. Brands want to get consumers as young as possible. An oft-mentioned heuristic was that half a consumer’s spend was done before they reach 35. There are a few things wrong with this approach:

Marketing science research has shown that consumers are brand promiscuous. Light consumers are more important for brand sales than heavy consumers. So an exclusive brand building focus of going after young consumers like a game of capture the flag isn’t the most effective approach.

We also know that there are a number of factors attenuating consumption patterns and spend along the generations so a youth focus makes less sense:

  • Older people tend to have more assets and the ability to spend. This is due to property prices, historic performance of pension investments, life insurance policies and a lack of student loans
  • Earning power in real terms has been declining over time. Taking into account a parity in education and inflation; boomers earned more than gen x, who in turn did better than gen y. Gen x managed to keep ahead of boomers only by having both partners in a marriage go out to work, to compensate for the man’s reduced earning power
  • Younger people are having to spend a larger degree of their income on somewhere to live. Student loan repayments creates an additional drag on their income
  • People are delaying life stages like marriage later due to the financial burden and have been having less children in most of the world
  • People are acting younger for longer and this reflects in their consumption patterns. Part of this is down to ageism in the employment market and part of it is down to them continuing to do what they love. I know Dads of college age kids who still skate or do martial arts. I know pensioners who love to buy lip gloss. An exception to consumer attenuation is the luxury sector. Luxury consumers have become younger, but that is also because the centre of gravity in luxury has shifted from US consumers to east Asia. Scions of first generation entrepreneurs from China, Korea, Singapore and Malaysia are not afraid to embrace their affluence

Life stages rather than generations

Culture is very important in making brand messages resonant. Culture is also adrift of generational labels. It is ethereal and finds its way to people, now more than ever. Being massively parallel in nature has made culture more democratic.

Thinking about the brand challenge in a consumer life stage way allows us to build strategic rather than short term communications. It allows to think about meaningful brand propositions across price, place, promotion and product. And then manifest it in a way that resonates culturally over time.

In an industry when marketing effectiveness is failing and campaigns are taking an increasingly short terms approach. Peter Fields’ report The Crisis in Creative Effectiveness for the IPA highlights the dangerous position that marketing is in. It’s a big hill to climb, but a good first step would be to ditch ineffective stereotypes as part of an effort to improve the quality of long term thinking and ideas.

Update (August 17, 2020)

BBH Labs looked at group cohesion data and in the process added another reason why generations don’t make any sense.

The Group Cohesion Score is our attempt at calculating the relative likemindedness of a group of people. Using TGI’s Jan-Dec 2019 UK dataset, we measured the size of the average majority viewpoint across 419 lifestyle statements. These statements range from the mundane (“I use a refillable water bottle most days”) to the profound (“There’s little I can do to change my life”) to the philosophical (“A real man can down several pints in a sitting”). The available responses are Agree, Disagree, Neutral or Not Applicable. These statements will elicit conflicting opinions in every group, but close-knit, homogenous groups (e.g. Mormons) will have larger majorities than weaker ones (e.g. left-handers). You can access the same data yourself through TGI – we haven’t manipulated it in any way.

As an entire populace, the UK’s Group Cohesion Score is 48.7%. In other words, the average majority opinion is held by 48.7% of the population. …On average, the generations have a Group Cohesion Score of +1.3, making them only marginally more like-minded than the nation as a whole. For Gen Z, this score falls to +0.2. People born between 1997 and 2013 have no stronger connection to each other than to the rest of the country. There’s an entire industry built on churning out Gen Z insights and it’s complete bollocks. They have no worldview.

Puncturing The Paradox: Group Cohesion And The Generational Myth | BBH Labs

More information

From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism by Fred Turner

Generation X not so special: Malaise, cynicism on the rise for all age groups | Stanford News Service

Gallup Historical Trends | Environment

Living: Proceeding With Caution | TIME magazine

X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking by Jeff Gordinier

Creative effectiveness is collapsing, claims new IPA report | Contagious