Dollar Shave Club to Dollar Save Cub: Can it find purpose again outside Unilever?
Unilever’s put Dollar Shave Club up for sale. Matt Charlton helped launch rival Harry’s and has a unique take on the ups and downs of the upstart razor brand.
Dollar Shave Club created a whole cultural movement around sticking it up to the man and became one of the most quoted brands in marketing and creative circles. Having frat boys calling bullshit on Gillette charging a fortune for needlessly over-engined razors and razor blades was an ingenious idea–a market with one dominant player rinsing everyone due to lack of choice. The panache and humor DSC did it with was breathtaking (followed very successfully by brands like BrewDog), and the business took off like a cut-price rocket and, within a few years, was sold to Unilever for a $1bn.
The business not only disrupted the market but also took the piss out of it and overnight made all the other choices feel as edgy as Wet Wet Wet.
Now Unilever has admitted it failed to get the best out of the acquisition and flogged a controlling interest to a VC. In the DSC deal, someone has been hit in the nuts.
What’s gone on?
It could be as simple as Unilever really made DSC too Wet Wet Wet and stifled the most valuable thing about it: its voice in the market and being on the side of real people, especially when you overlay the fact Unilever got badly lost in purpose. I’ve got a horrible sense of many hours spent behind the scenes trying to build a bridge from piss-taking funny razor brand to helping pandas – Dollar Shave Club to Dollar Save Cub. I would think those were painful, scratchy days if true.
The purpose was baked in at the start; DSC was an act of rebellion against the big corporates. So, being owned by one was a sensitive issue that I don't think it could ever sort. Unilever is quite collegiate culturally; it wants everyone to play nicely. Nothing wrong with that.
Yet a brand like DSC is more like PlayStation, which has always been allowed to have its completely independent space in the Sony family as such, embrace the crazy mad immersive world of gaming without screwing up the guys who sell TVs. I can’t help but think DSC really needed a model more like this.
My second point is the world, and audiences have changed hugely over the last 10 years. Pandemics, Trump/Boris/Putin, technology. People are not feeling the same. They are fleeing safety. They have had enough of chaotic disruption and need a rest.
In addition, pressure groups in culture have more power than ever. BrewDog has had to tune it down. Even M&S have got into trouble by showing someone rebelling at Christmas. Brands are having to tip-toe through a world that doesn’t feel very in tune with that of 2012, and DSC getting in your face.
The third point, which I know from launching Harry's in the UK is razors are a bit of a one-off. One player dominates it. None of the other extensions of men's grooming are. That means in shave, you can just lean up against the big bad guy; you can’t with the other products; you have to invest like crazy to build a proper brand vs piggybacking Gillette. That is a very expensive task.
Point four. Harry’s copied DSC and thought it was all about cheap blades and subscriptions. It wasn’t. It was about color. The orange handle made Harry's. Guys who embrace all sorts of personal grooming styles, have amazing tattoos, shave patterns into their wye brows and wear yellow Tommy trousers. They want more change than silver and wood. DSC missed that, and Harry’s lucked out on it.
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So where next? The value is in the insane levels of brand awareness with Millennials and the loyalty of the current base. To grow again, it needs to embrace the need to become cool again and not just another razor. I'd redesign the brand but keep the original energy. Diesel has done it really well over the years like the 'Campaign For Successful Living' and the brilliant 'Be Stupid' campaign. I'd do lots of collabs to get some much cooler product into people's hands. I’d buy a North Face razor with DSC.
In the right hands, DSC can bounce right back, and this is just a nick. In the wrong hands could be a bit trickier.