Pears cuts pave way for Unilever shake-up

Unilever is axing the Pears bodycare range in what could be the first move towards a global paring down of its 1,000 brands.

Despite last week’s press fest on the ditching of the Miss Pears Soap beauty competition and the launch of Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s sumptuous new press ad, the 200-year-old quintessential English soap with sales of just 4.3m a year is not a very significant drop in Unilever’s global ocean.

As such, the decision of Elida Fabergé, the Unilever-owned personal care and cosmetics conglomerate, to axe the Pears bodycare range launched as a brand extension four years ago (MW August 28), appears unremarkable. It received little marketing support and will not be missed in an overcrowded market.

But the move is more significant in the context of Unilever’s wider global strategy. It could presage further cuts from its portfolio of over 1,000 brands.

It is 12 months since Niall Fitzgerald stepped in as chief executive promising to “sharpen up” Unilever’s focus. The likes of Pears, a brand bigger in name than in wallet and only really known in the UK, simply does not fit in with Fitzgerald’s ambitions for long-term global growth in Russia, China and South America.

He wants Unilever’s sales to grow in line with the GDP of these areas, which he predicts will account for over half of the world’s economy by the next century. That means pushing the likes of global concerns such as Persil, Timotei and Impulse – brands which can dominate markets.

Fitzgerald was quoted as saying at the time of his appointment: “We have 57 categories, but fewer than 20 are of strategic importance or substantial local importance.”

One source close to Unilever says: “I wouldn’t be surprised if Fitzgerald and the powers above went into Fabergé and decided to transfer the budget set aside for the Pears bodycare range, using it instead to boost a globally ambitious brand like Organics.” Brands such as Van den Bergh Foods Dalesby have already been axed (MW August 21).

Since Unilever moved Lever Brothers’ soap brands Dove, Shield, Lux, Lifebuoy and Knight’s Castile into Elida Fabergé last year, there have been rumours that Fitzgerald might gradually bring the two companies closer together as part of his rationalisation programme, axing sub-brands and cutting staff.

Analysts agree that Elida Fabergé, hit like all personal care companies by own-label competition, should consider dropping some of its secondary brands with small market share and realise its global branding vision with products such as Organics and Impulse.

“Unilever realises it has too many brands, about 1,000 compared with Procter & Gamble’s 300,” says the source. “It needs to strip out anything that is not global or at least very significant in local markets.

“Local brands such as Pears become more difficult to sustain and justify. Pears soap will stay because it is high profile and has a strong heritage, but its brand extensions no longer fit into Unilever’s ambitions.”

A spokesman for Unilever says: “It’s hard to refer individual brands to Fitzgerald’s global strategy, but on a local level the developments at Pears are evidence of a more focused strategy.”

Peter Dart, chairman of the marketing consultancy Added Value, which has worked with Unilever in the past, suggests that range extensions have gone too far and companies should get back to developing new brands. “Many manufacturers make the mistake of thinking that if they’re successful in one market they can translate that into another. But if they’re going to capture a new market they’ve got to offer something new,” he says.

Anne Custance, marketing consultant at branding consultancy CLK, says the bath and shower gel market is extremely competitive. “Everyone at some time has tried to break into it. There is very little room for differentiation in both the soap and shower gel market. Pears soap has equity, but the bodycare products didn’t seem to latch on to this.”

Because of this, the range has met the same fate as Timotei’s skincare range and the Impulse shower gel, which were both axed within four years.

There are other markets where Unilever has decided to stick it out despite poor sales. Persil washing-up liquid is one example of a brand extension which hasn’t matched up to its parent, the original Persil washing powder. Red Mountain coffee and Radion washing powder are two underdog brands which refuse to die. There were renewed rumours that the coffee brand was to be axed two weeks ago.

Sources close to Unilever say the company will only keep a losing brand going to avoid completely surrendering a market to a rival. For example, in the detergent market where Unilever’s Persil comes in a close second to Procter & Gamble’s Ariel, it makes sense to keep Radion in the picture.

The shower gel market is probably too fickle for any brand to have any long-term significance, let alone one which its owners didn’t seem to value. “Unilever thought it could get away without even bothering to promote the Pears bodycare range. It always had greater things on its mind,” says the source.

Ultimately, that has cost the brand its future. There could be several other brands that fall foul of the wider ambitions of Fitzgerald and the Unilever board before long.

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