As it makes its first push into the UK market, Dollar Shave Club is trying to navigate the tricky terrain of marketing itself like a startup despite being owned by a conglomerate with its own vision for the brand.
Since being snapped up for a cool $1bn by Unilever Dollar Shave Club has used the FMGC giant’s far-reaching tentacles to scale in the US, Canada and Australia.
Now as it lands in the UK it's clear the brand – which according to Euromonitor now accounts for 54% of the US online shaving market – is walking the tightrope between playing to its roots as an irreverent challenger and aligning its proposition that of its parent company's.
To mark the UK launch, the monthly male grooming subscription club has set up a pop-up barbershop (or a Dollar Shave Hub) in East London’s Old Street tube station, where customers could drop in for a free shave. The brand has also been working with a select set of influencers to drive buzz around the offering, with a TV ad and investment in digital to follow.
So far, the approach is markedly different to the 2012 stateside campaign that made the brand famous; ‘Our Blades Are Fucking Great’, starring charismatic founder and chief executive Michael Dubin.
“We didn’t want to just slap the US proposition into the UK market,” Bart Kuppens, the former Unilever and P&G exec now leading the Dollar Shave Club’s entry into the UK, told The Drum.
Kuppens landed the job after spotting a press release on its acquisition by Unilever. Having worked in the FMCG space for the past 20 years he told bosses that he wanted to be part of it should it come to Europe.
To this point, Kuppens – who was eventually appointed by Dollar Shave Club’s boss Dubin – was firm that, although it has access to Unilever’s network the is very much still run as an independent business.
Indeed, Dubin still leads the business, which now boasts a team of 300. The brand does all creative in-house, as well as the planning and buying of media on social platforms. Its wider media account still sits with Mindshare, the same shop that manages much of Unilever's media-buying globally.
“Dollar Shave Club is still run as a standalone [brand], we can use Unilever’s capabilities but we stand alone. We still make our own decisions, but we confide in them a lot and discuss our ideas and plans. They have a boat load of great capabilities and access and scale and great quality people,” continued Kuppens.
Despite this, he acknowledged that having the backing of a force like Unilever helps when entering new markets. "Dollar Shave Club isn't entering into the UK as an itty bitty small player, it’s a Unilever brand launching into the UK. So that helps us tremendously."
This effort to balance out its startup heritage with Unilever's multinational muscle is also evident in Dollar Shave Club's approach to innovation, where a test-and-learn approach is tempered by its parent firms more pragmatic attitude.
Making early inroads into tech has paid off for Dollar Shave Club which invested in mobile early on in its history. On Android devices, its app has reached a conversion rate of over 125%.
When quizzed on how emerging platforms like Amazon’s Alexa might be harnessed, for example to allow consumers to renew their subscription, or check when their parcel will arrive, Kuppens said (with the confidence of a brand that has bigger budgets to hand if needs be) simply: "If voice turns out to be really critical, it’s really simple – we will be in voice."
But, with the caution of a start-up he also cautioned that being a "relatively small" outfit meant the company can't bet on too many horses at the same time.
"If [we] do something [we] need to do it right. I don’t think we will want to be really, really ahead of the trends. So, for example, you can't pay with Bitcoin at Dollar Shave Club – yes it’s sexy and everybody talks about it but the actual number of people engaging with that is tiny."
Away from digital and on to creative, it seems Unilever’s influencer also looms large. While the brand's US ads, like the 'Dunes' spot (above), still carry the brand's tongue-in-cheek tone, Kuppens suggested that the British iterations would go beyond razors and be “very much tuned into what moves what moves guys”.
This focus on helping men to be the best version of themselves appears to echo the tenets of Unilever’s ‘Unstereotype' initiative and as well tapping into a narrative which has played out successfully for sister brands Axe and Lynx.
“Quite a bit of our original platform resonated well but some other elements didn’t,” he continued, noting that the personalised approach – where users talk to unscripted ‘club pros’ instead of customer service agents – would play a role in its marketing.
While Unilever has been readying its UK, debut other grooming dot com services have swooped in. Despite the rising competition, Kuppens believes there’s still a “first mover” advantage up for grabs.
When Unilever bought Dollar Shave Club one of its ambitions was to leverage learnings from the startup's direct-to-consumer model and apply it to other areas of its business.
So far, this is paying off, and Unilever has launched two new direct brands in the form of skincare group Skinsei in the US which and Verve, a monthly subscription of products that protects clothes from damage wash after wash, in the UK. It’s also testing the delivery of "impulse" groceries to remain relevant with new audiences.
There remains a "big opportunity" in direct-to-consumer channels as consumer expectations change.
“[People] increasingly expect that from you," he noted. "If you don’t do that, frankly you lose out on opportunities to serve them with better tailored propositions."
As for Dollar Shave club, it hasn't revealed its sales figures since coming under Unilever’s watch, but at the time of its acquisition it had almost three million subscribers.
In regulatory filings from last summer, the businesses' growth in the first half of 2017 was described as strong and that it would "preserve” the companies' “entrepreneurial approach, taking valuable lessons for the rest of our portfolio.”
With founder Dubin admitting that he now sits alongside three Unilever executives on the board, it will certainly be interesting to see how the brand's UK launch plays out for both firms.