Unilever Gets a Lift from New Products

November 14, 2005

Unilever has rolled out a host of new laundry products that meet a diverse range of consumer needs.

Learn how to listen. It's good advice for newlyweds and words of wisdom for corporations as well. But too often, marketing departments get bogged down in paperwork and never take the time to listen to the consumer. During the past year, Unilever, which markets a range of laundry brands including All, Wisk and Snuggle, took to the time to listen to its customers. As a result, the Anglo-Dutch consumer products company has been busy rolling out new products, reformulating existing brands and shoring up its manufacturing operations all in an effort to regain share and boost profitability. Happi recently had an opportunity to hear all about the latest developments at Unilever from Bob Shipley, senior vice president and Bill Knees, vice president, laundry business team, Household and Personal Care, North America (HPC NA). Both executives noted that catering to the diverse needs of the consumer remains at the forefront of the company's plans.

"The need for convenience remains the biggest trend in the market," said Mr. Shipley. "Consumers want to decrease the time they spend on their chores to cope with the other demands they face in their busy lives. In the case of laundry, they would like to experience convenience not just in the laundry washing process per se, but also in the preparation and post-washing stages, such as sorting and folding."

The drudgery of the process may explain, in part, why sales of laundry detergents have stalled during the past year. Add that to the fact that the U.S. is a mature market when it comes to detergent product sales and it's easy to see why sales of laundry detergent liquids and powders have been less than robust. According to Information Resources Inc., Chicago, sales of liquids rose just 1.5% for the year ended Nov. 3, 2002. Meanwhile, sales of powders plummeted more than 12% during the same period.

According to Unilever, the main reasons consumers have shifted to liquids from powders are convenience and price. For convenience, liquids are not as messy to use and do not leave powder or white residue as in the case of powders. They're also easier to control and pour on stains, which makes it simple to use liquids as pre-treaters. "They have grown in popularity too," noted Mr. Knees. "Liquids no longer command a premium. So manufacturers focus most of their innovation propositions on liquid forms."

Smart Shoppers Have it All
In these tough market conditions, marketers such as Unilever are doing their best to make sure that their laundry detergent brands are as consumer-friendly as possible. During the past year, All detergent was repositioned as the "smart shopper" brand. "There is tremendous opportunity to meet the needs of consumers who know they don't have to pay up for performance," noted Mr. Shipley. "The key to realizing the opportunity is in developing products that really do perform, so that in All's case, you can't tell the difference. We realized there was an opportunity in laundry to satisfy this need, just as we have in our personal care categories with our Suave brand."

According to Mr. Knees, a continuing trend impacting Unilever's laundry business is the consumer's desire for performance and value. "They do not want to sacrifice one for the other," he said.

To extend the relationship that Unilever has built with the All customer, the brand was extended in mid-2002 with the introduction of All liquid and dryer sheet fabric softeners. Furthermore, Unilever introduced All Oxy Active, which removes tough stains and odors. "It is a safe alternative to chlorine bleach for colors and whites and again, it meets the needs of a growing segment of consumers who want great-performing stain-fighting laundry products but know they don't have to pay up for it," explained Mr. Shipley.

Another major initiative in 2002 was the merger of All and Surf into one laundry category power brand. "We felt it was appropriate and consumers agreed, to combine the cleaning strength of All with the fragrance heritage of Surf," explained Mr. Knees. Unilever expects the move, which began in the fourth quarter of 2002, will significantly enhance All's retail and competitive presence.

The rollout will take place over several years to allow consumers to get comfortable with the change and easily locate the product at retail. The Unilever executives told Happi that the expanded All line will continue to appeal to smart shoppers who value great performance at a reasonable price, but will now offer freshness choices such as Spring Burst, Sparkling Ocean and Bright Sky scents.

Last year, Unilever extended the Wisk brand with the launch of Wisk Sport.

Wisk Gets a Restage
In an effort to re-energize and re-invigorate Wisk, Unilever spent a lot of time with consumers to find out what they expect from the brand. "The truth is that here we had lost touch with our core consumer," admitted Mr. Shipley. "The re-stage addressed every aspect of the Wisk brand mix, including formulation, packaging, communication and retail support."

Wisk now has a much improved formula that is designed to remove tough stains in one wash and the best-ever greasy stain removal power in the category-an important attribute because consumers re-wash their laundry when they are not able to remove all stains the first time. "The power of Wisk allows us to address the consumer's need for efficacy and convenience at the same time," said Mr. Shipley.

To help spread the word about the reformulation, the Wisk package was redesigned from red to translucent blue and trade support was increased substantially. Furthermore, new advertisements promote the concept that getting dirty is a sign that kids are having fun and learning through play, so Wisk's message is "Go Ahead. Get Dirty." Finally, Unilever introduced Wisk Sport, a new product that promises to provide outstanding cleaning on tough grass and mud stains.

All these changes have provided a boost to Wisk's sales, according to data provided by Unilever. "Our records show that baseline sales are up 25%, so our early results are really good," noted Mr. Shipley. In fact, Wisk's share in the liquid segment was 6.1 in the third quarter of 2002 and 7.2 for the 12 weeks ended Nov. 16.

Although it has dramatically re-vamped its laundry detergent brands, the Unilever team never lost sight of the consumer's spending habits. Executives realized that consumers only have a certain amount of money to spend from paycheck to paycheck. "This led us to decrease Wisk's package size and in proportion, to a decrease in price," recalled Mr. Knees. "The new size makes it easier for consumers to purchase what they need when they need it."

The Unilever team is confident these changes will provide a boost to its laundry business. As Mr. Shipley pointed out, in liquids, the All brand is growing and will continue to get bigger with the migration of Surf to All. And although Wisk's sales have fallen, the company is confident that the recent relaunch and launch of Wisk Sport will turn that trend around.

"Much of the temporary business decline experienced in 2002 was also due to heavy competitor activities and the mushrooming of value brands," said Mr. Knees. "With regard to value brands, All offers a very appealing proposition to the value-minded consumer. We will continue to fully support All against this value proposition to increase its consumer share."

Snuggle offers consumers a wide variety of fragrances including Cuddle Up, Fresh Rain and Sweet Harmony variants.

A New Look for Snuggle
Unilever decided to develop a new look for Snuggle fabric softener too, in an effort to differentiate the brand and create better identification of variants on store shelves. Fabric softeners have traditionally been packaged in blue, making it difficult for consumers to identify their brand of choice. Snuggle's new packaging range helps key consumers that is a premium alternative to the competition while providing easier to identify fragrances.

The Unilever executives told Happi that the company's growth in conditioners is outpacing the category's growth, 3.5% to 2.1%. Moreover, the trend should continue as Snuggle's share is up and All is just getting seeded in the market.

Fragrance Makes the Difference
Fragrance plays a key role in fabric softener formulations and it plays an ever-growing role in laundry detergent products too. In fact, next to convenience, the Unilever executives maintain that fragrance is a big trend in the category. According to Unilever re-search, consumers like to "layer" their favorite scents in the laundry process. So now consumers can use All detergent and fabric softener without having to worry about clashing fragrances.

For consumers who like to experiment with fragrance, Unilever offers a variety of Snuggle fabric softeners in Cuddle Up, Fresh Rain and Sweet Harmony. According to Unilever, these scents enhance the customers' product experience by bringing consumers to a special place connected to the scent.

"Consumers are looking for more signals of clean beyond the visual proof; they like to be able to smell it and feel it," noted Mr. Knees. "These signals could either be in the product itself or in the result of the laundry."

The Unilever executives told Happi that segmentation is another example of the company's desire and focus to meet the needs of consumers. For example, All Free Clear detergent and Snuggle Pure & Gentle fabric softener are designed for sensitive skin. All Baby Care Plus is gentle enough for baby's wash and effective enough for the whole family's laundry. Meanwhile Wisk Sport is geared toward families with active children since it is especially formulated to fight grass stains and dirt while Wisk tablets are designed for convenience.

Cost Containment
The consumer is king. In recent years, virtually every packaged goods company has realized that consumers are no longer willing to pay high prices for cars and refrigerators, let alone cosmetics and laundry detergent. In this atmosphere, companies are monitoring costs in an effort to squeeze the most savings possible from the supply chain.

In an effort to streamline laundry product production, Unilever has created designated plants in North America. Its heavy duty liquids and fabric conditioners are produced in Baltimore and its entire line of conventional powders and tablets is manufactured in Cartersville, GA. Elsewhere, the North American business team works closely with other regions to optimize and effectively build a world-class supply chain that is focused on speed to market, innovation and delivery-all at the lowest supply chain costs.

"The results of this effort afford us timely access to materials and services anywhere in the world at the appropriate quality level," revealed Mr. Knees. "It drives continuous operational improvement and excellence and exclusive access to the innovation and value-addding capabilities of suppliers."

Although the Unilever executives refused to disclose plans for 2003, they did note that the company is working to develop next-generation technology for the laundry category as well as focusing on specific trends.

"For example, we know that fragrance is a critical and a discriminating attribute in laundry cleaning," said Mr. Knees. "Through new technologies, Unilever aims to attain the competitive edge in this field."

The company focuses on key growth drivers in a number of ways:

. Continually reconnect with consumers to better anticipate their needs and desires;
. Develop and nurture close working relationships with customers to create communication and sales support for their particular consumers;
. Constantly develop new technologies that will deliver product benefits in better ways and
. Explore new communication opportunities as well as ways of developing one-to-one relationships with consumers.
"These rigors are the bedrock of our brand development process," said Mr. Shipley. "Our insights led our laundry team to an exciting 2002, and we anticipate an even stronger year in 2003."