Can Flash leap from kitchen to garage?

P&G is aiming to galvanise the sleepy car-washing market by launching a Flash cleaning system. But macho male car owners may be wary of the brand’s homely image. By Daniel Thomas

Earlier this month, Alan Lafley, chairman, president and chief executive of Procter & Gamble, highlighted innovation as the reason why the company had added “the equivalent of a Nike or Sun Microsystems” to its top line since 2001.

One of P&G’s most successful recent US innovations – the Mr Clean home car-washing system – is to launch in the UK next March, under the Flash brand (MW last week).

But there are concerns this could be an extension too far for the household cleaning brand and the company is under pressure to replicate its US success in a far more fragmented UK market. The company will have to secure distribution beyond the traditional automotive channels – this means getting the supermarkets on board.

If P&G can marry the Flash brand to the masculine world of car accessories, it will find itself in a market ripe for development. There are more than 28 million cars in the UK, according to the Department for Transport. Between them, they are washed about 206 million times a year.

About 80 per cent of these washes are performed manually – as opposed to automatically or by a valet service – which leaves 165 million washes a year for P&G to target.

However, the market is only worth a lowly &£10.5m, with four brands – Turtle Wax, Simoniz, Tetrosyl and Halfords’ own brand – accounting for about 80 per cent of sales. There are also myriad smaller brands, including Autoglym, Mer Super Advanced and Zymol.

Sources say P&G hopes to at least double the value of the category with its Flash launch – the US market has doubled in size since the launch of the Mr Clean product in January.

To encourage the supermarkets to climb on board, the company will back the product with a &£4.5m ad campaign – a spend almost equivalent to half the market size – featuring Flash ad actor Karl Howman.

One source says: “There is a big opportunity here. There is no company out there the size of P&G. The category has had very little investment.”

But it remains to be seen whether UK consumers will embrace the product as whole-heartedly as their US counterparts. Zymol UK marketing director Chris Oliver says P&G may struggle to persuade consumers to accept a mainstream household goods brand in the market.

Oliver says: “There are lots of brands fighting it out, but I am not sure the Flash brand will make sense in the market. You immediately have the image of cleaning your kitchen.”

Another industry source adds that the main buyers of car accessories and cleaning products are men, who might be loath to buy a household cleaning brand such as Flash, preferring more “macho” alternatives such as Turtle Wax.

One retail commentator agrees that, while genuine innovations are very important to the market, this could be stretching the Flash brand. He says that extending a brand such as Flash away from its core household cleaning market could lead to consumer confusion.

Also, he adds: “There can be a feeling with these launches that innovations do not build the market, so much as take sales from existing brands. For instance, the air-freshener market, which has seen lots of new product development over the past year, has shrunk as consumers have become confused.”

However, a source close to P&G says the company would never consider an innovation-based launch if it didn’t believe there was a market to be developed. He adds that two basic criteria are used to justify such a launch: whether it genuinely helps the consumer and whether it fits with the equity of the brand.

He adds: “Flash is about easy cleaning. There is frustration out there, and this is what will be addressed with the easy-cleaning car product.”

But sources warn that P&G has not always picked the right innovations for the UK market. The company struggled during the late Nineties, introducing ill-advised brands such as home dry-cleaning brand Dryel, which was halted during its UK launch (MW June 21, 2001). Meanwhile, the Swiffer duster struggled to survive in the UK as a standalone brand, and was later subsumed under the Flash brand umbrella (MW July 17, 2003).

The company’s &£27m launch of Charmin toilet paper, in 2000, turned into a disaster following claims it blocked the sewage system (MW March 23, 2000). And the Co-op beat P&G to market with its liquid detergent capsules (MW June 21, 2001).

One P&G insider admits the company can be led astray by technology: “Sometimes, when you have a technology, there is a temptation to simply exploit it in some way. But there has to be a genuine consumer need.”

Investec analyst David Lang believes times have changed, however. “P&G’s recent successes, like its earlier difficulties, are based on its innovation pipeline. We saw failures such as Dryel hit the market a few years ago, whereas the recent focus has been on innovations around core brands, in areas such as detergents and haircare,” he says.

He adds that rivals such as Unilever have been comparatively slow to bring innovations to the market: “Unilever has been making great strides, but it is shooting against a moving target. P&G’s recovery has been superb but Unilever has stuttered.”

Other industry sources agree there has been a dramatic improvement at P&G. One says: “P&G has been ahead of forecasts with its new product development sales over the past 18 months.” P&G allows new products up to three years to prove themselves and constantly monitors performance.

He points to the launch of Flash Power Mop, which carries its own detergent in a dispenser. “The cleaning system category was worth &£30m in 2002/2003 and is now worth &£57m. This is the value of a successful innovation such as Power Mop.”

Flash Power Mop, which created its own niche in a traditionally low-innovation market, highlights the importance of new products in the household goods market: they help to prevent commodatisation in an otherwise value-brand led sector.

“If P&G didn’t innovate”, says Lang, “products would soon succumb to the scourge of private-label brands. Innovation is the lifeblood of the business and without it the company would fall to commodatisation.”

Innovation is essential for companies such as P&G, but new products are only successful if they satisfy a genuine need. Whether or not the car market needs a major brand launch remains to be seen – but if it does, P&G will once again be in the driving seat.

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