Olay Rebranding — Business Strategy & Design Thinking Lessons

In the late 1990s, P&G was looking for ways to dominate the beauty industry. Their research showed that focusing on skincare would help them in achieving their goals.

Skincare(soaps, cleansers, moisturizers, lotions, and other treatments) contributed about a quarter of the total beauty industry at that time.

Image Source:: CNBC.com

How focusing on skincare could help P&G? —

  • Loyalty — A detailed study revealed that customers remain loyal to their skincare brands as they deemed it risky to experiment with other new products/brands. It implies that a skincare brand could gain higher customer lifetime value from each consumer — A critical requirement for building a sustainable business.

To summarize — To become a leader in the beauty business, P&G has to find a way to dominate the skincare market.


In the 1990s, P&G had a skincare brand called Oil of Olay. Unfortunately, the brand was struggling in the market at that time. The growth had hit a plateau. Customers saw it as an old-fashioned brand with uninviting products(The target customers were also aged people(women above fifty years of age)). The market also had several other skincare brands, resulting in fierce price wars. The competitors had turned the marketplace into a bloody red ocean.

P&G’s team needed a skincare brand that was on the growth path. Unfortunately, Oil of Olay was not. It pushed them into a dilemma.

The team saw four strategic choices in front of them —

01. New Brand — Continue Oil of Olay as such and launch a new skincare brand to compete for a fresh set of consumers. However, building a skincare brand from scratch to market leadership could take years, and it’s also expensive.

A new brand is advisable —

  • When there is a sizeable difference between the past & future offerings.

However, the P&G team had no information about the future offerings or the expected sales volume to justify the investment for a new brand.

02. Acquire — The second option the team had was to buy an established, leading skincare brand. However, the team was aware that acquisitions were generally unpredictable, risky, and couldn’t guarantee market leadership. Buying established businesses was also expensive and would take years to break even. Moreover, the P&G team’s success rate was too low in acquisitions at that time.

03. Brand Extension — Another option the P&G team explored was to extend one of its leading beauty brands like Cover Girl, into the skincare category.

However, a brand should mean only one thing to customers. Intel means microprocessors. Colgate means toothpaste.

  • The ‘Dial’ was a successful brand in the soap category. It began to extend the name for its products in other categories -Dial Deodorant and so on. What happened? The ‘Dial’ has a large share of the soap market and a very small share of the deodorant market. If you ask consumers, Dial means… they would reply ‘Soap’. Dial holds a strong position for Soap inside a consumer’s mind. The brand never succeeded in other categories.

Extending a cosmetic brand into the skincare category would confuse people and undermine the brand.

A line extension is a weakness, not a strength — Al-Ries & Jack Trout

04. Reinvent The Oil Of Olay Brand — And, the last option they had was to revive and reinvent the Oil of Olay brand. However, it also needed a considerable investment with no assurance of success.

How should the P&G team decide? Who could help them? Where should they look for answers?

The Hint — The best people to answer those questions are the Customers. And importantly, the right customers.

Think of every brand/business decision from a customer’s perspective. Always consider the long-term prospects of the business and the brand while making decisions.

How to get the answer from your customers? Go and observe them, spend time with them, ask open-ended questions, and understand their hidden needs, desires, fears, and changing attitudes.

So, the P&G team went ahead to spend time with the customers.


The Existing Target Segment

Oil of Olay’s existing customer segment was women aged fifty-plus.

The research showed that their prominent fear was “wrinkles”, and the P&G’s skincare brand addressed them.

Price Sensitive and Not Loyal — The team also found that the fifty-plus women were price-sensitive. They were looking for ways to minimize their investment in skincare. Price played a crucial role. It implies that the brand couldn’t rely on customer loyalty to build a sustainable business.

Competitiveness — As the customers were price-sensitive, companies tried to outperform rivals by lowering their prices to grab a bigger share of existing demand. As a result, profit margins dwindled, and the growth rate stagnated. The product was fast becoming a commodity.

Are we in a growth market? — The study of existing customers brought out an ugly truth. Suddenly, the P&G team realized that the market appeared to have limited potential growth. They questioned themselves — Were they in the right market? Were they targeting the right customer segment?

Market Growth Feasibility — Before deciding to invest in building a value/mass brand, it is imperative to check whether the target market meets the following three criteria(Other than satisfying customer’s needs/desires)-

  • The number of customers that purchase the product — whether it is stagnant or growing

A mass brand would fail if the potential market didn’t meet any of the above three conditions.

Low frequency and low quantity — The research showed that most fifty-plus women didn’t invest periodically in skincare. So, their frequency of purchase is too low to justify a new brand investment.

A stagnant customer base — The customer base was also not growing rapidly enough to justify the brand investment. Only a small segment of new fifty-year-olds went for skincare products.

To summarize, it was clear that targeting fifty-plus women was not the way forward.

So, what’s the solution? — Grow the available market.


In early 2000, Cadbury Schweppes’ sales were stagnating — The company’s Chief Strategy Officer Todd Stitzer told his teammates, “I’m not going to ask you to increase our company’s market share. In that case, you would look at the existing market and the current competitors. I’m asking you to look for a strategy to grow the available market”.

Yes, the solution is to increase the available customer base. It is time to look for noncustomers and entice them to use our product/service.

Find a way to attract non-consumers.

W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne say that focusing on ‘Non-customers’ would help in generating ‘Radical Value Innovations’ — It would open up new uncontested markets.

Focusing on existing customers will break the existing market into finer segments, forcing us to tailor the offerings further, and reducing the market further. To break away from this, the first step is to shift your focus from “Customers” to “Non-Customers” — Blue Ocean Strategy.

So, where should we start? What nonconsumers should P&G target?

Clayton Christensen offers a solution in one of his books — Target the next generation of customers.

Nokia was a market leader in mobile phones in the early 2000s with a huge customer base and designs to meet customer needs. They had an efficient research and design team. Their designs were user-friendly and made after extensive research. Nokia thought they were keenly observing people, finding out opportunities, and solving the problems. Unfortunately, they became irrelevant sooner than they could predict and respond.

Regarding Nokia, Clayton Christensen says, “Best firms succeeded because they listened responsibly to customers, invested aggressively in technology, manufacturing abilities, designed wonderful products to meet the next generation's needs. Same best firms failed after some time, because they listened to the SAME customers, invested again, designed again to meet NEXT GENERATION needs”

So, to grow the available market, one of the options is to focus on the next generation of customers.


Who could be next-gen customers for Olay? Women in their mid-thirties?

P&G’s team went ahead, spend time, and observed several customer segments. One of them stood out.

The research showed that women in their mid-thirties seemed to be the right target segment. The team observed that most women felt anxious when they noticed the first lines and wrinkles on their skin.

We may have a question here — Ok. Let’s agree that there’s a fear and a need among the next generation of women customers. But, how to know whether they’d buy the product? How to know that there’s a definite market?

Business Opportunity — “Customers have needs” alone cannot be a driving factor to determine the market opportunity. We need to check whether the customers have taken steps to address that need.

P&G’s team observed that women in their mid-thirties took steps to address their needs(skincare fears) — They scouted shops for various products that could solve their skin problems — they bought whatever creams, body lotions available in the market which they thought could help them. Unfortunately, those products were not the right ones, leaving customers with little choice. So, there’s a business opportunity.

GROWTH FEASIBILITY — Now, it’s time to check market growth feasibility. As discussed earlier, the new customer segment has to meet specific conditions — Loyalty, Profit Potential, Frequency of purchase, and Growing Customer Base.

Potential For Customer Loyalty — The research showed that most of the women in their mid-thirties were committed to a routine of caring for the skin — periodical moisturizing, cleansing, & toning of the skin by applying day creams, night creams, weekly facials, and other treatments. They were spending money, time, and effort to maintain a youthful and healthy appearance. They were highly committed to skincare and could be easily converted to loyal customers if the brand provided them with quality products.

Profit Potential — Profit potential refers to a customer’s ability to deliver profits. Studies show that the percentage of married women in the paid labor force rose from 30% in 1960 to 62% in 2000. They earned comparatively higher salaries than in earlier decades. They were well educated, better traveled, financially independent, and more knowledgeable. They were aspirational. Those women wanted to exhibit an identity to the outside world. They were fine to spend some of their hard-earned money on themselves.

Those women were more than willing to pay for quality and innovation.

Growing Customer Base — In the 1990s, women in their mid-thirties was a growing customer segment.


P&G faced a dilemma — The needs and desires of fifty-plus women customers were different from the women in their mid-thirties. Should P&G design the product to meet the needs of existing customers or the new segment? Who should be the primary customers?

You may have a question here — Why can’t we target both customer segments? Unfortunately, a product for everybody is a product for nobody. Focusing on one segment as a primary customer will make organizational priorities clear for every employee. That will help everyone in making the right decisions/choices. It will also help in resource optimization. History also shows that unwavering focus has helped brands in creating several innovations.

So, P&G’s team realized that the best move would be to design a product to meet the needs of women in their mid-thirties.


Now, it’s time to answer the question of the brand name — Should P&G launch the product under a new brand name or another category brand or the Oil of Olay name?

The user research showed that there was still widespread consumer awareness of the Oil of Olay brand. Even women in their mid-thirties were familiar with the name. They associated the brand with skincare.

Familiarity Bias

Awareness Precedes Product Trial — Building brand awareness is a critical step in marketing new products. In Olay’s case, people were already aware of the brand. Should P&G leverage it or not?

Before making a decision, we also need to think about a factor called ‘Familiarity Bias’. We all know that our subconscious mind(not the rational mind) makes most of our decisions. Unfortunately, that mind relies on several short-cuts(heuristics or rule of thumb) in making decisions. (It is a natural way of conserving energy by reducing the cognitive load on the brain. Our beliefs, previous experiences, prior emotional-connect knowledge, and other things influence the choices.)

One of the short-cuts our brains use is Familiarity Bias.

The research shows that humans tend to look for familiar things while making choices. Unfamiliarity makes them uncomfortable and unsure. So, a familiar brand name has a better chance to encourage customers to try the new product. Moreover, Olay was known for only one thing — skincare. Therefore, it was a wise decision by P&G to re-invent the Olay brand rather than investing in an entirely new one.



As the P&G team chose a new target segment, the value propositions also had to be redefined. They could not just focus on “Wrinkles” alone. We saw that the thirty-five plus women had other concerns for the skin— Dry Skin, Age spots, Uneven skin tones, and the Appearance of skin. None of the other brands were focusing on those needs. Those unarticulated needs of the customers were the “value propositions” of the new product.


While choosing the value propositions, a company has to check whether it matches the current core competencies & capabilities and whether it aligns with the core values. Competency refers to an organization’s combination of facilities, unique processes, value-added networks, knowledge, skills, and technology that can help in completing a particular activity. Capability is the ability of the company to stretch/modify the core competencies to meet future needs without deviating from core values.

P&G’s team perceived that its competencies like larger scale, vast distribution network, vendor relationship program, inventory replenishment system, forecast systems, raw material procurement network, technology, in-house R&D facilities, and the marketing network could help in delivering the new value propositions.


Theodore Levitt wrote that the railroad industry failed because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business than in the transportation business. They were product-oriented than customer-oriented. If they had thought that they were in the business of helping customers get from one place to another, then they would have transformed their service offerings.

A few decades back, Hollywood was mauled by television. Some studios simply disappeared. They disappeared not because of TV but because of their myopia. They saw themselves in the movie business rather than in the entertainment business.

How to escape from this myopia?

Amy Gallo offers a solution based on Levit’s article on Marketing Myopia. She says that leaders, instead of asking What business are we really in?, should ask themselves What are we doing for the customer? Think of every offering from a customer’s perspective.

She adds that successful companies focused on customer needs and not on their products and services. Be it communication, marketing, or anything, they spoke in the customer’s language.

Olay Reframing — To avoid myopia, P&G also reframed Olay’s brand communication from a product perspective to the customer’s perspective.

Earlier, P&G said that Oil of Olay was making a line of skincare products. It was a product-oriented brand.

While reinventing Olay, the team asked themselves — What the new brand is really going to do for the customer?

The reframed answer —Olay would be in the business of inspiring women to live a healthier, youthful, and beautiful life. Its objective was to help a customer to advertise her youthful identity to the outside world.


To build a loyal customer base, every brand should ponder how to occupy space inside a target consumer’s mind. It is called Brand Positioning.

Why does your brand need to enter his or her mind? If you ask a consumer to name a cola drink, ‘Coke’ name will spurt out. If you ask the consumer to name a toothpaste that comes immediately to the mind, most probably, Colgate name would pop out. If you ask about a photocopying brand, ‘Xerox’ name will spurt out.

Why do these brand names stay at the top of the consumer’s mind? Because they were the first ones to enter a consumer mind under relevant categories.

Coke is the first cool drink to enter the consumer’s mind under the Cola category. Seven-up is the first cooldrink under the Un-cola category. Redbull is the first cool drink under the ‘energy drink’ category. Xerox is the first brand under the ‘photocopying’ category.

The above brands show that the easiest way to get into a person’s mind is to be first.

So, how can a business enter a consumer’s mind by being first? The business has to create a new category that doesn’t exist in a consumer’s mind.

What is the need for categories? Our human brains are wired for categorization to help us remember things. Without that, we would be quickly overwhelmed by the vast amount of information.

So, P&G has to create a new category and be the first brand in that.

OLAY’S NEW CATEGORY — We’ve already seen that mid-thirties women have more skincare needs than fifty-plus women. They were also broadly educated, knowledgeable, and well-traveled as never before, and importantly, they had disposable income. As a result, they were willing to pay premiums for a well-designed product capable of solving their aging/beauty problems.

The new sgement of customers also had a belief that you get what you pay for. They felt that the skincare products available in the mass-market channel were of inferior quality. Unfortunately, P&G had been promoting Oil of Olay as a mass-market brand.

The Way Forward — To attract working women, it was clear that P&G has to elevate the Oil of Olay brand to a step above the mass market. One option could be to position the product in the prestige segment. Unfortunately, there were already several competitors in that market.

And, there’s also another challenge in positioning the product in prestige segment.

P&G sold the Oil of Olay product at $3.99. Whereas in the prestige segment, the products had list prices from $50 to $400. The research showed that most working women were not buying those premium skincare products. They deemed it very expensive and out of their budgets.

The above information implies that thirty-plus women needed a product that costs only a few dollars more than the mass market segment.

The Solution — Position the Olay brand in a middle-market between the mass and the premium segment — A sweet spot between mass and class. It’s called the Masstige category, and Olay could be the first entrant in that segment.

So, the P&G team positioned the brand between mass and premium segments and created a new category called ‘masstige’ in consumers’ minds.

P&G also changed the brand name from Oil of Olay to Olay.

4.5 PLACE OF SELLING — Developing A New Capability

Earlier, as Oil of Olay targeted mass customers, P&G sold the products through drugstores and discount retailers — Walgreens, Target, and Walmart. Moreover, P&G’s ‘discount stores’ retail distribution network was one of the reasons behind the company’s long-term success. Therefore, it made sense to sell the new product through the mass market channels to leverage its strengths.

However, we need to think about every business decision from the customer’s perspective. The research showed that most of the thirty-plus working women were loyal customers of departmental stores where P&G had little influence/experience. They rarely visited the discount stores.

So, to target the new customer segment, the company should sell the products in department stores. P&G was fine with it and saw it as an opportunity to develop a new capability.


P&G considered the three following factors in arriving at the price —

01) Traditionally, P&G sold Oil of Olay’s products in drugstores under the $8 mass-brand category. We’ve already seen that there’s a belief that you get what you pay for. Most of the working women who highly valued their skin felt the products available in the mass-market channel were just not as good. So, the price has to be higher than the mass-market products.

02) P&G designed its core competencies to support products having higher sales volume. It implies that the company could make profits only when the customer’s frequency of purchase is high. However, people will frequently buy the products when the prices are as low as possible. It was a paradox.

03) The research also showed that a chunk of mass-market consumers was also willing to buy skincare products that were slightly expensive than mass-market products. It implies that Olay could gain new customers by keeping the price close to the mass-market products.

Consumers tend to trade up to the premium product in categories that are important to them — Michael J. Silverstein and Neil Fiske

So, to attract working women and encourage them to buy frequently, the product has to be priced as low as possible, but at the same time, it has to be above the mass market price(To counter — You get what you pay for).

User Testing for the Right Price— P&G team began to test the Olay product at various price points —

a) When P&G priced the new product at $12.99

  • Mass segment customers showed greater interest and intent to buy

b) When P&G priced the product at $15.99

  • Only a few mass segment customers showed interest and intent to buy the product.

c) When P&G priced the product at $18.99

  • P&G observed that most of the prestige segment women showed intent to buy the product. The price gave them confidence about the product quality. They saw more value in the product as they used to spend more than $30 for other skincare solutions in the same segment.

As Olay’s primary target segment was the prestige shoppers, P&G decided to launch the product at the price of $18.99.


The next step is to design the product, packaging, communication, and marketing strategies in such a way to help consumers decide to buy.

Do not think about selling a product/service but think about how to make consumers buy.


The first stage in persuading customers is the knowledge or awareness phase. It is about making customers aware of the product — Exposing and encouraging them to learn about how it helps them and how it functions.

The awareness program should motivate an individual to seek more knowledge about the product.

Awareness Through Hope or Fear

Generally, most brands use two methods to create awareness about the new product — Through fear or hope-based appeal.

Listerine — In the 1920s, Listerine targeted the fear psychology(fear of maintaining healthy human relationships) of people to promote its new product — Their ads showed how Halitosis(Bad Breath) would affect Human Relationships.

  • In one of Listerine’s video ads, the voiceover says — Look at this, Martin’s have been happily married for years, but something has gone wrong these days….Halitosis or Bad Breath is no help to a happy home……

Pepsodent — In one of the old poster ads in 1920s —

  • “Millions of women are using the new method of teeth cleansing and you could see the pretty teeth everywhere. Why would any woman have dingy film on her teeth? Use Pepsodent” — The brand used the “Social Proof — Fear” psychology technique.

In another old Pepsodent ad —

  • Mother, Baby teeth are very important… Neglect them and your child may pay the penalty in later life …

Most brands relied on a fear appeal to create initial awareness of their product.

But one man relied more on Hope-based appeal than Fear-based appeal. He was Claude C. Hopkins (1866–1932). He was one of the great advertising pioneers. Hopkins strongly believed that the better way to motivate consumers to buy a new product was not through the ‘fear’ factor but ‘hope’. And, he did use Hope-based appeal in most of his advertisements.

Olay and Hope Appeal — For the Olay brand, instead of targeting fear psychology by mentioning negative effects of wrinkles, dry skin, or other skin problems, P&G’s communication focused on beauty and healthy skin. The ads gave hope to people — It made them believe that it’s possible to maintain a youthful appearance.

One of their ads aired in the year 2000 starts with the following voiceover —

  • Wow! You look so much younger!.

In another ad — The voiceover starts with the following dialogue —

  • You look so radiant! You look beautiful!

Research shows that attitude toward the brand is higher when the company targets hope appeal than fear appeal in their advertisements. Fear appeal might be the best option to grab the attention but, to motivate people to change, hope appeal plays a pivotal role.

Awareness Of Needs

Everett Rogers says, “A need is a state of dissatisfaction or frustration that occurs when an individual’s desires outweigh the individual’s actualities.”

What if there’s a big chunk of customers who never felt the need to take care of the skin? Rogers adds that several individuals do not always recognize when they have a problem. In that scenario, it is imperative to educate the customers. It means that whatever ads/communications a brand creates for a new product has to elicit a desire in consumers’ minds so that they could feel the need.

We never knew that we needed a touchscreen phone until we saw an iPhone.

P&G, in their ads, visually pointed out various skin problems(dullness on forehead, dark spots near eyes, patchy skin on cheeks) and showed how they could live a youthful and cheerful life by eliminating them.

So, product awareness communication should show the customer’s hidden needs.


To persuade people, a brand has to inspire people to form a positive/favorable feeling about the product. Note the word ‘feeling’.

We have two minds — Rational and emotional. Feelings are part of the emotional mind. Research shows that our emotional mind makes most decisions. So, to persuade people, the brand has to appeal to a user’s emotional mind.

For P&G, the crucial barrier in persuading customers is to make them feel that the new product belongs to the prestige segment. If they could feel it, then they would consider Olay products were just good as, or better than, higher-priced competitors in that segment. To achieve that, the brand has to appeal to a customer’s emotional mind.

How to reach a customer’s emotional mind? — Our sensory organs have direct shortcuts to the emotional mind. So, visual mediums like advertisements/packaging can communicate directly to our emotional minds through sensory organs.

There are also other ways to reach emotional minds.

Product and Its Packaging

P&G team completely revamped the product and the external packaging. Let’s see what they did.

Reach Emotional Mind Through The Shelf Appeal— When launching a new category product, focusing on both product(primary packaging or the container) and external packaging would consume time and money. How about designing a product that could double down as packaging and looks impressive on the store shelves. P&G did the same — They made the product appear as premium as possible and enclosed it in a clear plastic sleeve. The product was responsible for the shelf appeal. The product aesthetics was classy and minimalistic — with the body in the shade of white and cap in black color. It exuded a fair amount of luxury. The collar‘s Satin Gold finish accentuated the premium feel of the product.

Reach Emotional Mind By Selling An Identity — P&G’s focus on product’s aesthetics had other advantages too.

To build a sustainable business, a brand wants every customer to bring in more people to buy the product.

In the real world, people are conscious about the status they build in front of other’s eyes. Our living rooms are all decorated with the guests, relatives in mind. People choose every visible product in a home to show a meaningful impression on visiting friends and relatives. So, a nicely finished, the premium-looking product has higher chances of being visible to guests. It’s a better way to promote the product through word of mouth.

Research shows that people buy products mainly for what they symbolize to others rather than for what they do.

Reach Emotional Mind Through User-Experience— Consumers will be using the skincare product every day. They’re going to hold, squeeze, open, and use the product(The touch feel has a direct link to the emotional mind).

Every interaction point is an opportunity to reach a user’s emotional mind and build a castle inside it. To achieve that, a brand has to provide a great user experience at each touchpoint. Ease of use is a critical element in providing that experience — The product should be as easy as possible to use. It should save time, effort, and cognitive load. People should understand how to use the product without any explanation.

Olay and Ease Of Use — In 1999, most mass brands(even prestige brands) sold products in squeeze bottles or generic jars. The users faced several problems with those product containers but had little choice. P&G decided to address those user problems. The design team came out with a new technology to deliver a thick cream elegantly, more like a lotion — The new system made it easier to dispense product into your palm. It was also a hygienic feature as dipping fingers into a tub of cream can contaminate the rest of the cream. Also, it was less messy. P&G solved several problems.

P&G team designed the containers in such a way that they would look distinctive and impressive on the shelf, but also work effectively once the product was at home. The team combined science with beauty, functionality, and visual appeal in developing the product packaging.


P&G launched the first product Olay Total Effects. It became a massive hit among the customers. Women loved the product and became loyal patrons of the brand.

Using that momentum, P&G introduced an even more expensive subbrand, with an active ingredient called Olay Regenerist. It also took off. P&G followed up with Olay Definity and Olay Pro-X(a more expensive brand). The company enjoyed higher margins of profit for more than a decade. For the 2009 fiscal year, Olay accounted for an estimated $2.8 billion of P&G’s revenue. In 2011, Olay ranked in 1st place among 50 of the industry leaders in Brand Finance’s Top 50 Cosmetic Brands(Source — Wikipedia). Olay created a new blue ocean and reaped the benefits of an uncontested marketplace for some time.

References:: The above content is derived mostly from the book Playing To Win by A G Lafley and Roger Martin. Other references are — The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen, Blue Ocean Strategy by W.Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, Positioning::The Battle Of Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout, Nudge by Richard Thaler, Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, What is Strategy-HBR Article by Michael E. Porter, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life -Book by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, Linking Brands With Consumer Identity -An article by Michael Solomon in brandingstrategyinsider.com, Luxury For The Masses — An HBR article by Michael J. Silverstein and Neil Fiske, Brand Portfolio Strategy by David A Aekar, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath, Emotional Branding by Marc Gobe, Diffusion of Innovation by Everett Rogers, Scientific Advertising by Claude C Hopkins.

Secular Humanist, Business Growth Consultant, Design Thinker, India. Reach me at mmshah8@gmail.com. or https://www.shahmohammed.com