Smell of success for fabric conditioners

The washing detergent category of the laundry sector is so saturated that it is nigh on impossible to generate volume growth. But that is not the case in the fabric conditioner market, where a battle is raging between Procter & Gamble’s Lenor and Unilever’s Comfort. Both these brands are jostling to increase sales in a market that has stalled at 75% household penetration.

Last week, Marketing Week revealed that Lenor was poised to launch a product using enhanced technology, similar to Comfort’s Fresh Release product, that is designed to release fragrance over time.

Comfort’s market share has dropped almost 9% since 2005, while Lenor’s has risen by almost 8%. Market figures from Mintel for 2007 show Comfort slightly ahead with 36% of the market and Lenor at 34%.

With its successful Lenor Infusions range, launched early this year, P&G has identified what it calls a “sensorial” consumer – a younger, trendier shopper. The company has positioned the range – co-branded with its Bold detergent – as a heavily fragranced, fashion-driven line with aspirational-sounding fragrance variants such as Black Diamond and Lotus Flower. As one senior industry expert puts it: “No one actually knows what that is supposed to smell like, but the strongly fragranced Infusions range has identified a consumer market that has been underused.”

Euromonitor household care analyst Adrian Atterby says: “Fragrance is the big news in household at the moment – it’s the one area where there can be real differentiation.”

Industry sources say Unilever has been slow to catch on to the fragranced trend, but it now has a toe in that market with Comfort variants Tempting Nature and Tropical Burst, launched in February. Some experts say Unilever has perhaps also failed to leverage its Fresh Release technology as much as it could have, given it was a real technical advance when introduced a year ago.

The other star performer in the category is P&G’s Fairy fabric softener. Although the brand can claim only a fraction of Comfort or Lenor’s sales, at £14.8m in 2007, it has bounded forward by an impressive 48%. Experts say P&G has made Fairy a credible competitor to Comfort’s Pure variety. One observer says: “P&G has taken Lenor in a different direction. It’s difficult to be heavily fragranced yet gentle at the same time.”

Comfortable leadComfort has traditionally “owned” the whole idea of gentleness with its Pure variant, which “knocked spots off” the Lenor alternative. The move to use Fairy to compete for the sensitive market, especially targeted at mothers of young babies, is seen as a shrewd move by P&G.

Atterby says: “P&G is leading the market in terms of marketing innovation, finding new ways to market. Its use of the Web is far and away above that of Unilever.”

Atterby predicts that the fabric conditioner market will become increasingly segmented in the next year. He points out that the large number of new products in 2007 stimulated growth but that many launches were highly promoted and so questions whether such a level of growth can be maintained. According to Nielsen, the market grew by 8% in 2007, with the category worth a total £271.5m.

The gloomy economic outlook may also have a negative effect on fabric conditioner sales in 2008. Atterby warns: “With food costs rising, fabric conditioners may struggle as consumers have more pressing needs for cash, and may trade down to supermarket own-brands, or cut it out altogether.”

Louise Jack

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