Every marketer dreams of concocting the ultimate growth hack — a savvy trick that would instantly boost your brand from unknown to iconic.
Michael Dubin, the co-founder of the Dollar Shave Club, did just that with a budget of only $4,500. Indeed, that’s how much it cost him to shoot DSC's viral launch video — featuring himself, pouncing around a warehouse and proclaiming that DSC blades are “f***ing great”.
Amassing several million views and excessive media coverage, the Dollar Shave Club video became a revered growth hack every other marketer praised. The video is, indeed, textbook perfect. It:
Communicates the main value proposition in the first 10 seconds: “For $1 a month, we send high-quality razors right to your door.”
Names the website address several times: “Hi, I’m Mike, founder of DollarShaveClub.com. What is DollarShaveClub.com?”
Packs a punch(line): “Are our blades good? No. Our blades are f***ing great.”
Makes the product benefits clear: “Each blade has stainless steel blades and an aloe vera lubricating strip….”
And, more than anything else, it was just fun. For a good reason, too — Mike Dubin studied improvisational comedy for 8 years prior to shooting that video. In fact, he credits much of his subsequent marketing accomplishments to this skill.
But as brand marketers, we know that it takes more than one neat trick and a singular online marketing channel to become the second-largest men's razor brand in the US and the most used subscription box.
So what else has Dollar Shave Club been doing right to achieve its brand growth? Let's take a look.
Brand Growth Lessons from Dollar Shave Club
After only a few years on the market, Dollar Shave Club became a brand to reckon with. It aggressively came for Gillette’s market share in the US. Under pressure, Gillette had to reduce its razor prices by an average of 12% and launch its own subscription service.
Still, Gillette’s US market share dropped from 70% in 2010 to 54% in 2018.
DSC's aggressive brand growth caught Unilever’s attention. After four years in operation, Dollar Shave Club received an astounding $1 billion all-cash offer from Unilever. For the first time, a direct-to-consumer (D2C) brand joined the unicorn club.
Post-acquisition Mike Dubin said that he wanted to become the next Starbucks. Why? Because Starbucks took a commodity product and “built a shared language around it and created space for it. They created a church for this brand."
Dubin wanted Dollar Shave Club to gain the same brand equity and value. And as of 2021, he's really close to succeeding.
Let’s dig deeper into how Dollar Shave Club's brand marketing evolved post-acquisition and the lessons worth learning from Mike Dubin, dubbed the most creative marketer in D2C.
1. Consistent Brand Marketing
Post-acquisition, brands often lose their unique identity and differentiators under the pressure from the new owners. Thankfully, that didn’t happen to Dollar Shave Club.
“We’re fortunate enough that Unilever bothers to leave us alone in terms of how they’ve positioned (Dollar Shave Club). ... It’s so good to have that trust coming from them to continue doing what we’ve been doing as we’ve enjoyed some success,” shared Matt Knapp, Creative Director of the brand.
Instead of rolling all its brands into a unified corporate portfolio, Unilever manages some of its brands as independent subsidiaries. This is a smart strategy as it allows the conglomerate to capitalize on individual brands' strengths, values, and stories.
Thus, Dollar Shave Club was able to retain its original brand positioning of “fun”, “no-BS”, “relatable”, and “unapologetically truthful” company. And they keep consistently cultivating these brand associations.
The 2019 "Dad Bod" campaign is the perfect testament to the above. Featuring men of all different shapes and sizes doing elaborate choreography in bath towels and robes with deadpan faces, it shows that everyone is welcome at the (Dollar Shave) club.
Or consider the 2018 “Get Ready” campaign, celebrating all of our kooky, weird, and wonderful grooming habits. Plus, this ad showed that we, as humans, can and should thrive outside of prescribed societal norms and expectations. Nice!
For most campaigns, Dollar Shave Club spotlights average people with imperfect bodies. They don’t attempt to “gloss things up” or make high-spirited, pretentious speeches about making the world a better place.
Instead, they stick to the small, simple, and very relatable things we do — weird product applications, not-always-appropriate but oh-so-fun bathroom mirror dancing, and so on. And this type of consistent brand storytelling works in their favor.
Some marketers think that consistency is boring as it diminishes room for creativity. Dollar Shave Club is a great example of how you can spin the “Welcome to the Club” idea in a multitude of different ways.
2. Good Ol’ Brand Rivalry
Coke has Pepsi, Uber has Lift, McDonald’s has Burger King. There are many brands with archnemeses out there.
Oftentimes, such friendly rivalry helps fan the flames of very creative marketing campaigns. It also keeps target audiences entertained, leading to higher brand awareness and recall.
Since the very beginning, DSC singled out Gillette as its main rival. The bigger company even sued them over a patent in 2015, though the dispute was settled by P&G, Gillette's parent company, in 2019. On the marketing turf, however, the two brands still engage in friendly clashes, snarky tweets, and occasional newsjacking.
In 2019, Gilette ran a controversial ad campaign about toxic masculinity. It was both praised and criticized by media outlets and consumers alike. Many people didn’t like the moralizing ring of the story. Others labeled it as too misogynistic.
Despite heaps of praise from NGOs and media, Gillette’s buzz score plummeted from 5.8 to -3.4 in a week after the campaign aired. Most people were talking about the brand negatively.
While the controversy kept unfolding, Dollar Shave Club did two things. First, they re-booted the 2018 “Get Ready” campaign as a series of OOH ads on Times Square, likely to remind consumers of their view of modern masculinity. Next, they published this “innocent” tweet:
Welcome to the Club.— Dollar Shave Club (@DollarShaveClub) January 14, 2019
While we don’t have the exact brand tracking data from that period, it’s safe to assume that this round was won by DSC.
But is brand rivalry a good marketing tool for everyone? There’s no straight answer to this question. It depends on how you play the game. A good rivalry can spark creativity and prompt a brand to explore new sales channels, refresh its messaging, and poke fun at the competition.
Burger King and McDonald’s marketing jabs are great examples of the above. For instance, in a UK "Whooper Secret" campaign, Burger King shows that for the same price you get a bigger sandwich. To demonstrate that, they shot a fun video, showing that the “other burger” was always placed behind their product in ads, but no one could notice that.
However, when a rivalry becomes the focal point of your brand story, you should probably reel it in. People get tired of endless squabbling, especially when the narrative changes from lighter banter to downright accusations, undercutting, and other “below the waist” moves.
For example, Apple and Samsung have developed this type of negative relationship over the years. On several occasions, Samsung has resorted to comparative advertising — which is often looked down upon by both consumers and ad regulators alike.
To show how Samsung phones are superior to iPhones, the company deliberately presented only more favorable features. Unlike Burger King, who is obviously making fun, Samsung was more determined to downplay Apple’s strengths while diverting the eye from its products' weaker sides.
So, before you engage in this tactic, think twice. Can your creative department pull off humorous marketing without getting borderline offensive or diminutive towards a competitor? Will this brand narrative land well with your target audiences?
Analyze and strategize before acting.
3. Effective Omnichannel Scaling
Most D2C brands eventually hit a customer acquisition plateau. Direct sales reach is limited by high marketing costs and low profit margins. Even for subscription businesses with recurring revenue, aggressive customer acquisition gets tough.
That’s why DSC's acquisition was an equally good move for both Dollar Shave Club and Unilever. At that time, Unilever lacked the ability to connect with customers directly — but DSC excelled in this department. However, Mike Dubin didn’t have any experience with wholesale and retail distribution, where Unilever already dominated.
Despite being hugely successful online, Dollar Shave Club reached a tipping point of exhausting the total addressable market. After all, many people still grab razors and other personal hygiene products at retail locations.
So DSC started setting the scene for omnichannel operations. In 2018, the brand experimented with selling razors via vending machines during a time-bound pilot. By 2020, Dollar Shave Club did a major brand refresh and rolled out new brand aesthetics for its website, product packaging, and other assets.
Source: Dollar Shave Club
The refreshed look was part of wider pre-launch planning activities. Shortly afterward, DSC goods landed on shelves at Target and Walmart. And their 2021 “We Got You” ad campaign places their new retail-special product — a 6 Blade vs 4 Blade Razor Starter Set — in the limelight.
As of 2021, DSC is selling its products at over 40,000 other retail locations. However, the company still plans to maintain an active offline presence and answer men’s pressing grooming questions, like those voiced out in the 2021 ad, through online channels.
But both the new leadership and the now-departed Mike Dubin were oriented towards omnichannel growth. “I'm hopeful that we'll be able to, in the next year or two, turn our guns toward omnichannel international," Dubin said before stepping down from the CEO position in 2021.
Why the not-so-sudden change of heart? The male hygiene market has evolved. Per the 2019 Mindbody survey, US men now prioritize beauty and grooming as much as women do. But still, spend somewhat less monthly — $29 vs $39.
Also, the interest and demand for self-care, cosmetics, and male health products spiked during the pandemic. For instance, younger men are more inclined to seek out eco-friendly and gender-neutral products. Likewise, decorative cosmetics usage is up. Over 56% of American men use some form of facial cosmetics like BB cream or concealer. While over 30% of guys under 30 would consider or already wear makeup.
Dollar Shave Club is gradually acting upon the market changes. As Dubin noted, “Men have become a lot more comfortable in (the grooming) terrain, the category is growing and we’re well-positioned to take advantage of that.”
The brand already branched out into fragrances and tentatively expanded its product portfolio with more diverse goods. And we are curious to see how their brand marketing will further evolve under the new leadership.
In mid-2010, Dollar Shave Club started the razor wars — a period of aggressive market re-segmentation in the US. Though the battle was tough, they emerged as the winner by consistently increasing the customer lifetime value with their brand and expanding into new product verticals.
As the male grooming market further evolves, it would be interesting to see how Dollar Shave Club will leverage the new omnichannel market strategy to convert those one-time retail shoppers into their grooming “church”. What can we say for certain, it’s going to be a fun ride!