Whatever happened to Metrosexual Man? The slick, urban guy who took care of his appearance, used product on his hair and face and was unembarrassed about being scented and moisturised has made way for the more natural, rugged and beard-loving Retrosexual as epitomised by Hugh Laurie (L’Oréal’s latest ‘spokesmodel)’, Zach Galifianakis and any male nu-folk singer you care to mention.

It’s worrying news for a male grooming category that’s struggling to contend with price inflation and a massive consumer clampdown on discretionary spend as the latest data reveals. Value growth has slowed from 2.2% last year to 1.9% this and volumes have actually fallen 1.4%, having last year grown 5.5% [Kantar Worldpanel 52w/e 15 May]. But the outlook may not be quite as bleak as it seems.

It’s true that premium products such as skincare, fragrance and hair styling products have been particularly hard hit, with sales down significantly both in value and volume. It’s also the case that razors & blades managed only modest 0.9% value growth, while volumes slumped 7.7%.

But while the fact that the under-45s are shaving less can partly be put down to the austere times we’re living in, it can also be attributed to changing facial fashions, rising prices and a sharp reduction in the number of promotions.

Volume sales have also been adversely affected by a degree of trading up as men ditch cheap disposable blades in favour of higher quality, longer-lasting products benefiting some brands more than others. Wilkinson Sword’s launch of Quattro Titanium, for instance, helped it grow value sales by 21.1%, while Gillette’s sales slipped 0.9% despite the launch of larger value packs and the new ProGlide shaving system.

Generally, however, it is the more affordable everyday products that are holding up better sales-wise. Deodorants enjoyed stronger value growth than last year and increased their market share by a percentage point to 33.1% thanks chiefly to the under 45s and heavy promotional activity from Lynx (see page 76) while shower gel actually posted the same value growth as last year and even better volume growth, at 6.5%.

The slump in volumes and frequency of purchase in key sub-categories, notably skincare, should not be mistaken for waning interest in male grooming, though, say experts. It is just that the emphasis is shifting with the retrosexual rather than the metrosexual now very much calling the shots.

Cut from similar cloth as his L’Oréal predecessors Gerard Butler and Eric Cantona, Laurie presents an older, more sophisticated and unapologetically masculine role model than was used to appeal to the metrosexual market.

He also allows L’Oréal to engage with a more mid-market audience, which it has done to great effect with its Men Expert range, sales of which have soared 69.7% in the wake of its entry into deodorants and continued growth in skincare [Kantar].

These consumers are prepared to pay a bit more if they believe the product merits it and they’re after something designed specially for them rather than ‘for men’ versions of female products.

This has prompted a shift towards niche products, believes Neil Wilkinson, director of male grooming brand Rockface, which is aiming to bridge the gap between premium and mass-market products. “Big brands were doing very well and being given more space at the cost of smaller brands,” he says. “However, lower margins and sales reflect the fact that consumers weren’t impressed with the lack of choice and there is now a shift back to developing more niche brands.”

Recent growth of Potter and Moore’s high-end St James and Truefitt & Hill Authentic No. 10 shaving brands indicates that men are looking for something extra and are willing to spend more on a product that isn’t mainstream, agrees Potter and Moore’s group marketing director Pippa Clark. “The sector is evolving, and the consumer is moving with it, which means that greater sophistication will become more of a purchasing factor,” she adds.

Or it would be if the men were actually doing the shopping. It tends to be women who buy male grooming products on behalf of their husbands and boyfriends a Kantar survey last year found half of all male grooming products were bought by women and they have very different purchasing criteria, it seems.

“There’s a feeling that women are beginning to cut back on grooming products specifically for their other half, in preference for more generic products that all the family can use,” says Joe Bakowski, managing director of graphic design consultancy Stocks Benson, which includes Tesco, Morrisons and Wilkinson among its clients.

This may be why some brands in an effort to encourage the purchase of products that are specifically for men are targeting their advertising efforts specifically at women. Take Old Spice’s current ad campaign. Its tongue-in-cheek ‘the man your man could smell like’ ad, which stars buff, retrosexual US actor and former sports star, Isaiah Mustafa, became an online phenomenon after it went viral. It also boosted sales of Old Spice body-wash products in the US by 107%, according to a P&G spokesperson, and is expected to achieve similar results here.

The company also scored a hit with its viral style ads featuring rugby stars Jonny Wilkinson and Brian O’Driscoll for Gillette Fusion. P&G’s ad spend on the Fusion brand in 2010 increased by a whopping 39% [Ebiquity], with sales growing accordingly by 24.7% [SymphonyIRI].

Unilever also splashed the cash on key brand Lynx, boosting its ad spend by 293% over the past year [Ebiquity], and increasing the number of promotions it has run by 51 on the previous 12-month period [Assosia]. It is committed to pursuing this strategy as part of an effort to “educate and engage men on how and why products are relevant to them, at the same time improving the appeal of the male grooming aisle,” says Jane Boret, senior brand manager for Unilever UK.

“Only a few brands such as Dove Men+Care are growing value ahead of volume and putting growth into the category,” she says. “The market needs to look towards innovation, differentiation and education to drive long-term growth, backing the brands that are driving the real growth in the category and not just promoting the deepest.”

The products that are definitely not driving growth at the moment are own label, with the exception of Boots No. 7. Brands continue to dominate the male grooming category with a 91.4% share of the market, while own label has seen its share slip 1.3% in the past year. Despite the slump, Rhian Bartlett, category manager for beauty and baby at Sainsbury’s, insists that own-label items “always have a role to play”.

They may well do, but as with the brands, it looks as though it’ll be a role that’s determined as much by the purchasing whims of the fairer sex as the needs of the retrosexual men they’re buying for.

Focus On Male Grooming