Can P&G put a topspin on Ariel?

Few Tim Henman supporters will be rooting for him more vigorously this week than the normally sober, buttoned-down executives in Procter & Gamble’s UK offices.

For housewives’ favourite Henman is also one of P&G’s most valuable allies. As brand ambassador of Ariel, its leading UK washing detergent brand, he provides an emotional link direct to consumers which has all too often eluded P&G marketers.

In principle Ariel, which has an emblematic importance for P&G way beyond its power as a brand, ought to be UK market leader. It had an unrivalled opportunity to upset Persil’s dominance after conducting a brilliant PR campaign against the discredited Persil Power brand in the mid-Nineties. Not only that: a number of buyers would (privately) concede that Ariel is technically the better product. Yet it continues to languish, with about 20 per cent of the market against Persil’s 29 per cent. The failure is all the more galling when considered in terms of the category. P&G has powerful subsidiary brands in Daz and Bold, giving it about 49 per cent of the market, well ahead of Persil-maker Lever Fabergé’s collective showing.

P&G’s opportunity to redress this irksome imbalance will come in September, with a &£20m all-singing, all-dancing relaunch of Ariel. Besides fighting off a jumbo-sized marketing investment, Lever will also have to confront a wholly reformulated product, whose new enzyme technology delivers a ’30 per cent improvement in stain removal’. The Ariel tablet range has also been thoroughly overhauled to provide greater solubility.

In the past, P&G – probably influenced by the nature of the Power fiasco – could have been accused of excessive caution in bringing new technology to market. Yet Alan Lafley now leads a very different P&G to the sluggish, introspective Leviathan of a few years ago. Lever Fabergé will face a rejuvenated beast, newly energised by the restructuring of its management and brands, and buoyed by sharply upbeat profits. This at a time when Unilever’s Path to Growth strategy seems to be in trouble.

Even so, commentators are sceptical about just how much headway Ariel will make against Persil. They do not doubt (so far at least) P&G’s ability to put reliable technological innovation into the market, but question consumers’ reception of it. In recent years it has often been smaller companies, such as Aquados, which have first introduced innovations; yet they have not noticeably upset the balance of power in the category.

P&G could parry this by saying that technological innovation is only a means to an end: convenience. The trouble is, most of what is called convenience has been delivered by technology in recent years and, in a mature market, the marginal benefits of innovation are becoming harder and harder to come by.

This is where Persil’s stronger brand equity will kick in, say the sceptics. Years of developing emotional, rather than rational, brand characteristics has stood Persil in good stead in the past (for instance, in fighting off Ariel’s momentary lead after the Power fiasco) and may well serve it again.

Let’s hope, for P&G’s sake, Henman is in winning form this year and can help make Ariel the housewives’ favourite as well.


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