Paper cuts

The latest battle in the big brands’ war with supermarket own-labels is being fought in the toilet paper aisle. Kimberly-Clark and Procter & Gamble are slashing the price of their rolls, and others are set to follow. But the fight is far from

There was a time when the major grocers’ own-label versions of branded products competed solely on the basis of price. But now it seems that brands are using the same weapon to win back territory from the increasingly successful own-labels.

Kimberly-Clark’s (K-C) decision to cut the price of its Andrex toilet roll (MW June 28), making it cheaper than most supermarkets’ own-label brands, is the latest tussle in a long and bitter battle between leading premium brands and own-label goods.

Household goods giant Procter & Gamble (P&G) is following K-C’s move and is poised to rebrand its Charmin Ultra toilet roll as Charmin Comfort next year and cut the price (MW last week).

One City analyst says: “Both K-C and P&G have the resources to reduce their prices and still maintain margins easily. And if branded products – which are perceived as more luxurious and aspirational than supermarket brands – come with a cheaper price tag, then people who buy own-label goods are likely to upgrade to branded ones. Clearly, it [reducing prices] is an easy way to maintain market lead and also ward off the threat from own-label brands.”

Many household goods buyers believe the toilet tissue price cuts have been triggered by the stiff competition that market leader Andrex has been facing since the launch of Charmin in the UK.

One buyer says: “During the 18 month period since Charmin was launched, Andrex’s market share by volume has fallen from 25 or 26 per cent to 22 per cent. Charmin’s volume share has grown from zero to seven per cent in the same period. If both brands reduce their prices there could be a knock-on effect across the whole industry.”

K-C will not admit that increased competition is behind its decision to slash the price of its twoand four-roll packs by about five per cent. This will undercut all the main supermarkets’ own-label rolls, apart from Asda’s Shades brand. The company has also announced it will reduce the number of sheets on each Andrex roll from 280 to 240.

K-C vice-president of customer management for northern Europe Ian Jones says: “We have made Andrex thicker, and the technology does not allow us to put the same number of sheets on the roll with the added thickness. We did a study to find out whether consumers were prepared to pay the same price for an improved toilet roll with fewer sheets. The answer was no, which is why the prices have been reduced. It has nothing to do with diminishing market share or striking back at retailers’ own-label products.”

Jones says he expects K-C’s rivals to react by reducing the prices of their own products, bringing them into line with Andrex.

According to AC Nielsen figures – provided by K-C – Andrex’s market share for June was 27.4 per cent by volume and 31.5 per cent by value. A year ago the figures were 20.5 per cent and 24.7 per cent respectively. P&G has 5.3 per cent of the market by volume and 5.8 per cent by value.

K-C European marketing director Ben Anderson says a new Andrex advertising campaign to be launched later this year will focus on price, although the “soft, strong and long” slogan will remain unchanged.

“Length is only a metaphor for value,” says Anderson, “The new Andrex is an improved product with thicker sheets but reduced price.”

Supermarket buyers are convinced that there will be a further price reductions across the sector, including branded and own-label products. Companies such as Georgia-Pacific, which makes Kittensoft, and SCA Hygiene, manufacturer of Velvet, are said to be waiting to see the effects of lower pricing before following K-C and P&G.

Sainsbury’s, which recently carried out a quality test on its own-label rolls and Andrex, and concluded that “six out of ten people felt that Sainsbury’s Supersoft was softer, stronger and longer than Andrex”, says it has no plans to reduce the price of its Supersoft brand. The own-brand costs &£1.85 for four 280-sheet rolls, compared with Andrex, which now charges between &£1.65 and &£1.85 for four 240-sheet rolls. Charmin charges &£1.99 for four 192-sheet rolls, but plans to cut the price and reduce the number of sheets to 184 per roll.

Thicker versus softer

A Sainsbury’s spokesman says: “Andrex is putting seven per cent more fibre in to its new product to make sheets thicker. From our tests we know that thicker sheets have a detrimental effect on softness. Our product will still offer customers good value at a very competitive price. Without cutting costs we can still offer customers better value per sheet.”

Richard Perks, senior retail analyst at Retail Intelligence, believes that own-label products have become strong brands in their own right. He says: “Own-label products are not unbranded any more. These products carry the name of the retailer that sells them, and so have a high reputation and high loyalty.”

It is not only in the toilet tissue sector that brands are stepping up the fight against own-label goods. Over in the food aisles, Campbell’s is putting more money into marketing its soups – an attempt, according to food buyers, to fight off the threat of own-label products. The soup company is boosting its marketing spend by 15 per cent in an effort to revive its flagging business (MW last week).

According to the latest Taylor Nelson Sofres (TNS) study on the UK canned soup market, Campbell’s is the third largest brand by value of sales, behind Heinz and standard own-labels.

One food buyer says: “The big retailers are becoming very confident of what they can achieve through own-label goods, which is why they have diversified. Not only are they offering value brands, they have also launched premium ranges. Manufacturers such as Campbell’s need to increase their control over access to consumers.”

In 1999, cereal maker Kellogg cut the price of six of its cereal brands by up to 12 per cent in an attempt to claw back sales lost to supermarket own-brands. According to the latest TNS report on breakfast cereals, based on consumer spending Kellogg’s Cornflakes is the market leader, followed by Weetabix, Kellogg’s Frosties and Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut Cornflakes.

A penny a can

The baked beans market is another area where a brand leader – in this case Heinz – has faced a massive own-label onslaught. So intense was the battle that in 1996 some supermarkets cut the price of their own-label baked beans to as little as 1p a can. Mintel’s latest survey on own-label brands across all sectors reveals that the baked beans market is the most heavily penetrated by own-label goods.

TNS Superpanel communications director Edward Garner says: “A straight price war is not a very clever strategy. Even during the baked beans price war, Heinz did not slash prices.” The latest data from TNS shows that Heinz still leads the baked beans market.

As well as competing against lower priced own-label products, market-leading brands also face the threat of “copycat” brands aiming to cash in on consumer loyalty enjoyed by established brands.

In 1997, the High Court ruled in favour of McVitie’s, maker of Penguin biscuits, and ordered Asda to remove its Puffin brand from the shelves within 35 days. The retailer was allowed to keep the Puffin name, but was asked to change the packaging.

The 1994 confrontation between Coca-Cola and Sainsbury’s Classic Cola is another example of a market leader defending itself against a cheaper rival copying its iconic packaging. The soft drink giant forced Sainsbury’s to alter the packaging of its cola by threatening to stop supplying Coca-Cola products to the supermarket.

Own innovation

Not content with undercutting the big brands and copying their product design, own-label retailers are also investing in product innovation. Earlier this year Unilever and P&G announced the launch of capsule detergents (MW February 8), but in the race to be the first to get the new product onto the shelves, both companies were pipped at the post by the Co-operative retail group, which launched its own capsules containing pre-measured doses of detergent.

Simon Knox, professor of branding at Cranfield School of Business Management, says: “Looking at the present situation it is fair to ask who consumers trust: the manufacturer or the retailer? The answer is that trust is increasingly vested in the retailer.

“K-C’s move is extraordinary. It smacks horribly of production-led thinking. The move could be suicidal for a brand like Andrex, which has always been so strong.”

The Mintel report points out that both retail buyers and their suppliers are acutely aware that there is no place on the shelves for products that do not perform. The report adds that all the major supermarkets are increasing their share of the total grocery trade, and it is inevitable that own-labels will increase their volume share of trade in future.

According to industry experts, K-C’s price cuts have been prompted by the continuing penetration of own-label products. Along with a cheaper price tag, the cute Andrex puppy will now have a shorter length of tissue to frolic around in, but by biting back at its own-label rivals K-C could secure a larger chunk of the market.

But, as Richard Perks points out, price is only one factor in consumers’ purchasing decisions: “People do not buy a product just because prices are reduced. What works at the end of the day is the price-quality relationship.”

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