Predicting the future for Axe

26.09.11

How do you stay ahead of the game when you’re researching designs that won’t launch for three years? A question that we faced when researching new shower gel packs for Axe / Lynx

It’s a criticism often levelled at market research that, although consumers are good at telling you about the here-and-now, they’re not so hot at telling you at what’s around the corner. “If I’d asked my consumers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse”, as Henry Ford famously once said.

Henry Ford's Speedy Stallion range met with disappointing sales

It’s a conundrum we faced when working with Unilever on the new Axe (Lynx in the UK) shower gel. Axe is a brand which has innovation built right in – consumers expect the brand to be pioneering change in personal care, and for its packaging to reflect that.

Not only that, but own labels are always hot on their heels with a suspiciously similar-looking pack, so there’s a constant pressure to keep ahead of the game.

Tesco shower gel & Axe shower gel (old pack)

The trouble is, structural innovation for a global brand can take anything up to three years to get from the concept board to supermarket shelves. So when Jonny Consumer was talking about what designs are doing for him back when we worked on the Axe shower gel project in 2008, he did so with all of 2008’s cultural references and design influences (back in the days when a tablet was something you swallowed with water).

This is an interesting challenge for us design researchers. From our perspective, while consumers are unlikely to serve up the next big trend on a plate (though you never know), we think they absorb more of what’s around them – and how it’s changing – than you might think. All of which means that learning how things could or should change in the coming years is a case of adopting the right methodology to tap into that fountain of knowledge.

The author of this post is aware that this image will look embarrassingly dated by 2012

Now we’re not going to give away all our secrets, but suffice to say for this type of project we recruit the kind of forward-looking consumers who, with our gentle encouragement, are able to open their minds to the pace of change. We can therefore use them to explore design codes – dominant (always around), residual (currently trendy) and emerging (the future), focussing on the latter to project forward and gaze into the misty world of ‘three years hence’. Before you know it, we have consumers talking constructively and creatively about design development and how designs that might look a little alien now fit neatly into the way things are going – so they’ll still feel fresh in three years’ time.

New Axe shower gel pack

‘So how did this pan out for Axe?’, I hear you cry. Good question. Well, over two stages and five markets, we helped Unilever identify the right way forward for the brand. That took the form of what you can see to the left – and now filtering onto shelves the world over. It’s a striking angular design that conveys the kind of gravitas, masculinity and dormant power that’s expected of the brand, coupled with a sophistication and neatly interwoven form and function (free of flippant gimmickry) that’s expected of products today. And – importantly – it looks pretty cutting edge, both figuratively and literally. Hell, if we were to really blow our trumpet we might even argue that we saw the shift from curves to angles long before Apple launched the iPhone 4. Not bad for three-year-old research.