P&G rethinks its way of wooing consumers

How can companies build relationships with consumers of low-interest goods, such as cleaning products? David Benady considers what companies are doing to reach their target markets

Procter & Gamble’s (P&G’s) decision to axe customer magazine Mustard in favour of a lifestyle website called Fresh Living (MW last week) highlights the difficulties packaged goods manufacturers face in building closer relationships with their consumers.

You might wonder who would want a relationship with their washing-up detergent or floor cleaner. But P&G believes getting closer to its customers is essential in the fight against the encroachments of retailers’ own-label products. As the company says in a statement: “Fresh Living is to be tested as a new marketing tool to help us strengthen the relationship with our consumers.”

However, some point out that any strategy driven by the needs of the company rather than the wishes of its customers could struggle to succeed.

In a world awash with lifestyle advice from magazines and television programmes, there is a feeling that few people will go online to look for tips on better living from their supplier of household goods. The disappearance of Mustard, which was distributed earlier this year with the Daily Express and was also sent to 300,000 names from the P&G database of female customers with children, indicates that the project failed to provoke much response.

P&G says it will “continue to analyse the test market results” for Mustard, but there will be no roll-out for the moment. Instead, the Fresh Living website will promote P&G’s household care brands, such as Fairy Liquid and Flash. The programme includes a monthly newsletter e-mailed direct to consumers, and features home improvement tips, ideas for house and garden makeovers, special offers and the chance to try new products.

It is easy to be sceptical about the appeal of such a venture, but it is well to remember that Channel 4 has had a hit with reality TV show How Clean is Your House?, which features two women going around cleaning up filthy homes. The show’s website even offers to text house cleaning tips to people’s mobiles. These days, even the most mundane household chores can be turned into mass entertainment.

So offering tips on dirt busting could be one route for P&G to make customers interested in its household care products. According to Russell Abbott, managing director of marketing communications agency WDPA, packaged goods companies find it much harder to communicate with customers at the supermarket shelf these days, because retailers are restricting signage and promotional materials by brands.

Ten years ago, says Abbott, supermarkets were cluttered places full of gondola advertising and hanging signs promoting brands. Since then, the retailers have made great efforts to simplify the in-store environment by insisting on consistent, supermarket-branded information. They have also restricted brand promotions to shelf-edge signs.

“The brands are increasingly looking at ways of reaching their customer base and building brand values in the face of ever-increasing own-label competition. The retailers now control many of the best ways of reaching consumers, such as loyalty schemes and in-store magazines,” says Abbott.

He adds that packaged goods companies have attempted to use direct mail to get closer to their customers with varying degrees of success. But he points out: “Return on investment from a direct mail campaign is difficult because unit sales are usually low value and lifetime value against investment doesn’t always stack up. Many manufacturers have relented and realised that the best route is to work with the key retailers and invest in communication through loyalty schemes such as Tesco Clubcard.”

Other packaged goods manufacturers have used various methods to improve their customer relationships. The Jigsaw Consortium, a joint marketing initiative between Cadbury Schweppes, Kimberly-Clark and Unilever launched in 1997, attempted to combine the companies’ databases to target consumers. The consortium launched a magazine called Voila!, though this was soon axed. It is unclear what activities Jigsaw is involved in at present.

It makes more sense for manufacturers of low-priced goods to get closer to customers through an online strategy, given the costs of publishing and sending out magazines and direct mail shots. As Louise Ainsworth of Ogilvyinteractive says: “For a packaged goods client trying to build a direct relationship with a busy target market, communicating online and through e-mail is a must. If you add in the ease of capturing contact details online and the reduced cost per contact of online communication it is clear why packaged goods clients are putting interactive at the heart of their relationship marketing programmes.”

Many observers think P&G is to be congratulated for trying to find a way round the problem of customer closeness in a world dominated by retailers. But observers say there have been few serious attempts by packaged goods manufacturers to harness e-mail marketing. Given the expense of direct mail, some think they are finally waking up to the fact that they have precious few other options. “Hats off to P&G, they are the only ones seriously trying to make the Web work better,” says Nick Suckley, managing director of Media.com, MediaCom’s interactive division.

He adds: “It is hard to engage consumers with low-interest products. These kinds of communications are driven by the manufacturers’ desire to communicate rather than the consumers’ desire to be communicated with.”

He thinks that where products have emotional interest, the task is much easier. He points to the pet products market as one that has successfully used the Web, with sites such as Masterfoods’ mypetstop.com. People are eager to find out about puppies, kittens or babies and will go online, read magazines and thirst for as much information as they can get.

Even personal care products such as deodorants, soap and perfumes can exert a pull on consumers. In the US, P&G runs the Reflect.com beauty website. But toilet paper, toothpaste and household cleaners are likely to struggle to forge any but the most functional relationship with the people who use them.

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