SBHD: When Lever Brothers managing director Andrew Seth stepped down, it was inevitable that his departure would be linked to the Persil Power fiasco. Here he sets the record straight on both Persil Power and Lever. By Sean Brierley
Last week the “soap war” became the “soap opera” as various national newspapers proclaimed that the villain of the Persil fiasco was to leave. “Man behind the Persil Power fiasco makes clean break” (Today) was a typical reaction.
When Marketing Week broke the news (February 17) that Andrew Seth, managing director of Lever Brothers, was to take early retirement at 57, it was inevitable his departure would be linked to the fortunes of Persil Power. According to internal sources, the Unilever board had offered him other jobs within the organisation to prevent further adverse publicity.
In the scramble to condemn Seth, the newspapers were not only unfair, but wrong. The decision to market the faulty product worldwide was taken by the detergents co-ordinator, Niall Fitzgerald, and the Unilever board. Seth and his UK team were charged with implementing the plan for Persil Power.
“I realised there was a possibility that people would say Andrew is upset about Persil. Or they might even say, Andrew has dropped a ball and business has kicked him in the goolies. I assure you that both of those rationales are 180 degrees wide of the mark,” says Seth.
If there is no connection between Seth’s departure and the fortunes of Persil Power, why did he decide to go?
The official reason is that he wanted to retire to pursue other interests, one of which is to become a marketing guru preaching about developing people-centred “learning” cultures in companies. He has also been associated with the Marketing Council.
However, one factor many have missed is that Seth is a very ambitious, driven man.
He joined Lever Brothers in 1961 as a management trainee and worked his way up the corporate ladder, occupying top marketing positions in Mexico, Switzerland, the UK, US and Brussels.
However, Seth is not a typical “Unilever man”. According to former colleagues, he is iconoclastic and irreverent. In a speech to the Marketing Society last November, he attacked his own company. “We’re all far more familiar with the innovation blockers: top management isolation, conformism, bureaucracy, fear of change, short-term vision. They’re particularly prevalent in large, well established, structured `we-know-it-all’ organisations like mine,” he said. “Most of us work for companies that innovate all the time. But most of these innovations are small, evolutionary, predictable, imitative and won’t last.”
Although in the space of 15 years Unilever has cut its UK staff from 100,000 to 25,000 employees, at the top of the company there is still a preference for home-grown talent and the phrase “job for life” is still prevalent at senior levels. As managing director of Lever Brothers UK, Seth is an automatic member of the Lever Europe board.
There is little movement at senior levels of the company following the disasters of the past year. In December, Fitzgerald announced he would not join Unilever’s Consumer Products group special committee – Unilever’s highest executive board – this May as planned, but would delay the move until 1996 in a bid to return the detergent brands to the top of the market.
One analyst says there will be few opportunities for promotion at senior levels until the crisis is perceived to be over. “Lever Brothers has lost an intelligent, competent businessman,” he says. “Seth’s ambitions within the company were thwarted by the failure of Persil Power, not his own position.” The analyst adds: “He has wanted to become head of Lever Europe for some time, a sure step towards joining the Unilever board.”
One of his colleagues on the Lever Europe board, Aart Weijburg, will take over from Seth on April 1, six weeks after the launch of New Generation Persil. Weijburg, an experienced marketing chief who has worked in the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Germany, will, according to Seth, help the return to “normal consumer brand marketing” for Persil after the nightmares of the previous year.
Seth is frank about where the blame lies. “I wouldn’t fault the business management or brand marketing of Persil,” he says. “Any problem is firmly located in the understanding of the ingredient in the research laboratory.”
However, Seth says Lever underestimated Procter & Gamble’s reaction once the product was launched. “Of course, you have to put comparisons into advertising,” he says. “What we don’t do is undercover stuff, and we certainly don’t spread sedition about other brands.”
Seth would not elaborate on the mechanisms that contributed to the crisis, but sources in the company indicate that another mistake was made in the development stage of the project, codenamed Operation Clover. “Over the years, Persil’s share had been eroded by P&G. There was no strong innovation. When Lever discovered it had a technological advantage it went flat out in every market with the new product. It did not even conduct a field trial of the product.”
This week Lever launches the campaign for New Generation Persil, which is effectively Persil Power without the accelerator.
Seth says New Generation Persil will appeal as a simple across-the-wash presentation of the brand. The gist of the campaign is “outstanding cleaning and care across the wash”.
“The New Generation campaign will concentrate on core values,” Seth says. The launch commercial features a kids’ pantomime of Puss in Boots. The coloured costumes are dirty. In steps Mum who, with the aid of New Generation Persil, resolves the crisis.
Seth is confident a return to traditional values will succeed. Any reservations that consumers have with the brand won’t exist in six weeks’ time, he says. He predicts Persil will be restored as market leader in months.
Last year, for the first time in its history, the Persil brand lost its top UK market position. According to industry estimates, Persil has lost market share to own-label; in three years, Persil’s share by volume has fallen to 23.4 per cent, while Ariel’s has risen to 27.5 per cent.
Seth says if there is consumer confusion about the Persil brand and Persil Power, “we will resolve it”. He adds: “I am perfectly prepared to see Persil Power continue to be available for as long as consumers want it. But if people no longer want Persil Power and want New Generation Persil instead, Persil Power will be consigned to history.”