A kinder, gentler Brawny Man.

Advertising deconstructed.
March 22 2004 3:58 PM

A Kinder, Gentler Brawny Man

The paper towel icon gets a makeover.

The spot: It's a puppet show of household products. Two paper towel rolls sit side-by-side, watching a soap opera. On the first roll is emblazoned the familiar Brawny Man, who indicates in voice-over that he's indifferent to the sappy soap. Next to him, on a roll with updated packaging, a new, improved Brawny Man is displaying more refined emotions. His voice-over displays his detailed understanding of the soap's relationships. He cares about love and loss. In short, he's got a softer side. In a separate spot, he's even shown meditating on a yoga mat, chanting, "Om" (as the old Brawny Man looks on and scoffs). At the end of each ad, we're told that Brawny has been "massively improved." Click here to see the ads.

On occasion, a brand icon will wear out its welcome and need to be revamped or replaced. In extreme cases, the icon will have devolved into a bizarre and off-putting grotesquerie. I'm speaking here not just of Kirstie Alley (recently dropped by Pier 1 in favor of one of the Queer Eye guys), but also of the famous Brawny Man—Georgia-Pacific's paper towel spokes-cartoon.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

If ever anyone needed a Queer Eye-style makeover, it was the Brawny Man. Exhibit A: the risibly unfashionable denim shirt (open to midsternum). Exhibit B: the porn-star moustache. (And did they have to make the Web site brawnyman.com?) Exhibit C: the tufts of hair obscuring the ears (though the outdated look was much better than coifs past—the Brawny Man was still sporting a center part up until 1991).

Clearly, the Brawny Man had let himself go, style-wise. And yet G-P couldn't just dump him—he's way too famous. Brawny scores a remarkable 70 percent "unaided brand awareness," according to the company, and that's thanks in large part to the Man. So while a clean break was out, some major rejiggering was in order.

First, the physical changes. The Brawny Man—previously fair-skinned, with blond hair and green eyes—is now olive-skinned, with brown hair and brown eyes. According to Gino Biondi, Brawny's director of marketing, this was done for greater appeal to a wide variety of ethnic groups.

Along with his new DNA, Brawny Man got a fresh shirt. The denim one was replaced with a flannel, and—crucially—a T-shirt was added below it. When Brawny did consumer research on the old Man, they found he was perceived as "very 1970s." The undone buttons with the bare chest beneath were key elements driving this perception. Thus, shirtage.

The final physical change is the addition of a torso. The old Man was just head and shoulders, but the new guy shows off his beefy, barrel-chested frame. This change is about projecting more strength, says Biondi, because Brawny's brand equity is all about strength.

In fact, it's a little too much about strength. Brawny has long pitched itself as the strongest paper towel—least likely to collapse under the weight of wet muck (as opposed to rival Bounty's "quicker picker upper"). But it seems that's not always a winning message. Biondi says the top three paper towel uses, in order, are cleaning spills, wiping windows, and drying hands. Strength is great for the first two, but you don't want to rub your hands—or your baby's face—with a fiercely abrasive paper towel. Brawny desperately needed "a softer side," according to Biondi.

So, first they spent $500 million on Through-Air Technology, which softens towel fibers and makes them more absorbent. And second, they moved beyond the Brawny Man's physical changes and gave him an emotional makeover, too. And so we get a Brawny Man who watches daytime television and is perfectly comfortable in the lotus position.

These ads have two jobs: They're meant to convey the improved softness of the Brawny towel, but they're also trying to forge a new emotional bond with female consumers. This remade Brawny Man is—G-P hopes—the kind of guy you want around the house. He's sensitive to a woman's needs. He's not afraid to help out in the kitchen.

Is it silly to think that women would buy paper towels based on a fantasy romance with the cartoon hunk on the packaging? Brawny doesn't think so. They've spent frightening amounts of time and money designing the new Brawny Man. They went through untold iterations, seeking to strike the perfect balance between "too real" and "not believable." A photo of a real-life hunky fireman was rejected ("too real," says Biondi), and more cartoonish versions of the Brawny Man also got dumped. "It's like romance novels. Women want someone more fantasylike, who they can mold in their own image." And when you think about it, it's no different than selling beer with hot, slutty women.

Is the Brawny Man makeover a winner? Perhaps I'm not the ideal judge—about 80 percent of paper towels are bought by women ages 25 to 54, and that's not me. But I'll give it a whirl, anyway. My assessment: A change was imperative, as the old Brawny Man had become laughably outdated. At first glance, the new guy seems sort of generic and lacks the old guy's kitschy appeal. But that's the point. Now that Brawny is innocuously modern, you can fantasize that he's all you want in a man—more sensitive, more emotional, more absorbent—and his haircut won't break the spell.

Grade: B-. The makeover was a long time coming. The ads are just so-so.