The Day I Watched the Old Spice Guy, Isaiah Mustafa, Break Open the Internet

It remains the greatest viral marketing campaign the internet has ever seen, in part because no one will ever be able to repeat it.  


Isaiah Mustafa wasn’t a household name six years ago, when, in the span of several days, he became incredibly famous. He still isn’t. Most people know him as the Old Spice Guy and he’s been virtually replaced by Terry Crews, America’s go-to shirtless charmer. But Mustafa still matters; he’s an important figure in the history of the internet. When he came along, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook had figured out their UX, but not their economics. Everyone knew there was gold in those hills, but no one knew how to find it.

There was serious anxiety over it all; millions of potential customers all on one place, all that untapped potential, but how do you reach them, how do you interact with them? Marketers were learning that unsolicited communications on social media were often treated more harshly than cold calls — and those negative reactions were public. Meanwhile, it seemed that customers only used social media when they had a complaint: “Social Media Manager” was still a nice way of saying “customer service representative.”

My employer at the time, a small tech company in Vancouver, Washington, had a vision of social media that looked something like their very own branded MySpace-style website. The goal was to convince companies to resist the big social media sites and create an environment where they could erect their own rules of engagement. You really don’t know awkward until you’ve heard an otherwise very capable salesperson convincing a 60-year-old dairy farmer why the family farm should drop $20,000 on their very own personalized Facebook.

“We’ll create a page for each one of your animals, Bob,” a representative would explain. “Your customers will really like thinking they are direct-messaging with a cow…. Hello? Bob?”

I don’t think we ever sold one of those custom sites, but in our defense, everybody was basically throwing spaghetti at the wall. Nobody had an answer that was anything but a total mess. Figuring out how to attract new business, facilitate consistent positive interactions, and hopefully monetize through social media was like the holy grail of internet marketing at time.Little did we know, all it would take a was man in a bath towel to change everything.


When Portland-based marketing firm Wieden+Kennedy launched the “Smell Like a Man, Man” campaign in February of 2010 the world changed. Many might not remember is that Old Spice was getting crushed in the men’s body-wash market. There was some worry whether Old Spice was putting its entire brand in jeopardy by trying to stay in what was considered a young man’s game. By letting companies like Axe cater to the kids with the sprays and washes, Old Spice could have protected its aftershave and deodorant business. But Old Spice wanted more than that.

Luckily for all involved, former NFL player Isaiah Mustafa was the perfect spokesman: handsome, likable, and the embodiment of goofy masculinity. The commercial itself was hilarious and perfectly irreverent; the Old Spice Man was just a parody of Old Spice’s marketing strategy for the past half century. And the timing — debuting the commercial on Super Bowl Sunday — was impeccable.

Wieden+Kennedy and Mustafa didn’t just saved the brand, they created a cultural phenomenon. Young, old, man, women, everyone — EV-ER-Y-ONE — was talking about the “Old Spice Guy.” Mustafa became an overnight sensation, and Wieden+Kennedy were heralded as marketing geniuses for turning Old Spice around on a fairly tight budget, all things considered. From a marketing standpoint, it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime sort of lighting bolts where you hit the right button and create a campaign that’s bigger than the product.

For my part, on the morning of June 12, 2010, I was sitting in my cubicle when a co-worker instant messaged me a link to a YouTube video and the message “The Old Spice dude did some YouTube videos. LOL!” By that time, the account had only posted three videos, starting with this “King of Latvia” video directed at Ellen DeGeneres:

Even though the Old Spice accounts on Twitter and Facebook were encouraging people to ask the Old Spice Guy questions, and Mustafa mentioned repeatedly in subsequent videos he was responding to questions, it took us all a few videos to figure out they were doing it in actual real “real time.” And not just in real time, but at an amazingly fast clip; by the time we had finished watching one video, the next one was posted.

I can’t really explain that feeling: when we all started to realize exactly what we were watching. It’s kind of that gobsmacked feeling when you determine the solution to a difficult problem you’ve spent all day trying to untangle is the easiest possible answer, right in front of you the whole time. It’s not like what they doing was was technically complicated, but that was kind of the point. They had this newly minted marketing icon, but instead of shooting flashy commercials, it was a guy standing in front of a camera, answering questions in a bath towel.

By the time the seventh or eighth video had been posted, the entire office — about 50 or so people — were at their terminals, watching. The rest of the day, (and for most of the next), there was a cacophony of giggles and appreciative waves of “Oooohs” and “aaaahhhs” as new props were unveiled, or as the Old Spice Man held real-time conversations with celebrities. This was a sequence with Alyssa Milano, especially after she published a photo holding the just delivered fragrantly fragrant flowers that was particularly impressive.

For our marketing team, and I’d suspect marketing departments across the country, it was like we’d just been punched in the gut. We were watching the DaVinci code of internet marketing being cracked, one YouTube video at a time. Wieden+Kennedy and a guy in a towel had just dunked on the entire marketing industry with one simple idea: harness multiple social media accounts to … shoot the shit with your customers.

Six years later, case studies are still asking, “What Can Old Spice Teach Us About Viral Internet Marketing?” The campaign earned 1.2 billion media impressions domestically and internationally, traffic to the Old Spice website increased by 300 percent, and most importantly, Old Spice’s body wash sales soared 108 percent.

There is no doubt the Wieden+Kennedy team busted their collective asses; the team ended up shooting 186 personalized responses over two and half days. As it turns out, the productions was a bit more complicated than they looked, especially given the frequency at which the videos were being churned out. And in fairness to the simplicity of idea, there were certain conditions that made the “Answer” campaign possible: a brand with plenty of name recognition, the ability to reach influencers like Ellen or Alyssa Milano, the benefit of a budget that allows for a commercial to debut at the Super Bowl, and of course the talent of a actor like Isaiah Mustafa to be the perfect mouthpiece.

So what, exactly, did Old Spice teach us about viral internet marketing? Broadly, it showed that positive engagement on social media is totally possible; so long as you give people something they want. Even if it’s just watching a topless man send instant messages over YouTube.

Perhaps more importantly, though, it proved what a lot of us at the time feared: truly great internet marketing ideas, or really internet ideas in general, are the ultimate one-and-dones. The marketing folks at our company knew it was too late as soon as they saw it: the real genius of having the most ground-breaking viral marketing campaign in the history of social media is that, by definition, it can’t ever be duplicated.

It was only a matter of time before our boss, a self proclaimed “big idea guy” called them into a meeting and asked them to “Do something cool on social media like that Old Spice thing” (which he did first thing that next Monday morning) and all they could do was put on their best Crying Jordan faces and explain why it couldn’t be done again (which they did for the next two weeks).

The Old Spice “answers” campaign was so perfect, the execution so smooth, that the entire concept can literally can never be used again. For Old Spice, they won’t need to: case studies will continue to be written for the next couple of decades (as will the “I remember when” think pieces like this one). The real lesson Wieden+Kennedy and Isaiah Mustafa taught the rest of us is if your looking for a real home run, don’t just break the internet, brake the whole damn idea.

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