Sure hopes invention inspires value with anti-perspirant launch

SureUnilever’s upcoming launch of a high-performance, powerful deodorant product under its Sure brand is an example of how manufacturers are forced to seek ever-more inventive ways to add value in a mature, competitive market.

Sure Maximum Protection, with variants for men and women, will launch in January 2009. It claims to offer twice the protection of the best-selling anti-perspirant (MW last week).

Although Unilever says it is not a medical product, the positioning of the new launch is skewed towards it being a treatment. The range is aimed at people who are “anxious” about the amount they sweat and, at £4.99 for 45ml, are prepared to pay a premium for greater protection.

Unilever is also poised to launch new deodorant products under its Sure and Dove brands, which it claims reduce underarm hair growth. The consumer goods company is expecting a great deal of interest in these products, which it says incorporates new technology that gradually makes underarm hair finer and slows its rate of growth.

The company’s strategy to add value to products and segment consumers into age, gender and, now, specific performance requirements goes a long way to explaining why Unilever dominates this category, taking over 50% of market value with the top four brands – Sure, Dove, Lynx and Impulse.

‘Barrel scraping’ or necessary?Yet some critics look on this type of product development as “scraping the bottom of the barrel” to create growth around the margins of mature markets, while others say it is a valid and necessary way of driving brand interest and loyalty and one that has been employed across a number of packaged goods categories.

Interbrand chief executive Rune Gustafson says: “You’ve got to believe that Unilever has done a lot of research and has identified a need for Sure Maximum Protection. There can be a temptation for leading brands to look only at mass and overlook niche, when often these are the best segments to innovate against.”

Retailers also play a part driving the market. Mintel senior market analyst Vivienne Ihekuweazu says: “Price promotions in retailers are ubiquitous, commonly revolving between the major brands. Thus, the struggle for added value has become crucial.”

Yet as Ihekuweazu points out, deodorants differ from many consumer goods categories in being a “long way” from becoming a commodity, while brands have a “powerful presence”. Supermarket own-brands have had very little impact, taking a mere 5% of the 2007 UK market, which was worth a total of £460m, according to Mintel. Ihekuweazu says given margins are small and the arena so intensely competitive, it is perhaps not the most tempting for own-labels to enter.

Skin care growthOther brands are seeing growth, driven mainly by links to skin care. Beiersdorf’s Nivea adopted a skin care positioning, consistent with the brand, and its value grew from £11m to £17m between 2004 and 2007. Its 4% market share is dwarfed by Sure’s 19%, although looks more respectable when compared with Dove’s 7%.

Colgate-Palmolive’s Soft & Gentle is not far behind Dove, with 6% and the company has extended the Palmolive brand into deodorants. Henkel, which acquired Right Guard in 2006 from Procter & Gamble, spent £5m in 2007 revamping the range, which had been losing share.

Despite being owned by some of the most adept consumer goods companies in the world, no single brand comes close to either Sure or Lynx, both with 19% of the market. Unilever owns the UK’s top four brands, three of which occupy pole position in different sectors, meaning there is little cannibalisation between brands. With its constant approach to innovation, almost “to the point of lunacy” according to one executive, Unilever’s lead looks unassailable.

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