Can Digital Marketing Rekindle Growth at Reckitt Benckiser?

Marketing Chief Jiri Kulik Plans to Remain Biggest Advertiser in Online Video

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Juri Kulik
Juri Kulik
Jiri Kulik's interest in digital marketing isn't just professional, it's personal: He was scheduled to be on the United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, that went down in Shanksville, Pa., but changed plans to visit E-centives, a digital-promotion vendor, in Bethesda, Md.

Reckitt Benckiser's new North American marketing chief is steeped in digital marketing and believes the second wave of digital media he's been part of will be the one that succeeds. Under Mr. Kulik's predecessor, Andrew Lacik, who left to head RB's global home-care business, the company spent more than $20 million on online video each of the past two years. Mr. Kulik sees no reason to change RB's standing as the biggest spender in the medium.

Digital is part of his plan to do what RB brought him to the U.S. for from his most recent stop as general manager for South Africa. Among other things in his career, he's helped double dishwasher penetration in Turkey. Now he's relying heavily on digital media to rekindle growth in a U.S. market where household penetration for seemingly unavoidable products like toilet-bowl cleaner has been declining lately.

But while Mr. Kulik was always a digital pioneer, he wasn't always a true believer. He was RB's representative to the Transora digital supply-chain alliance for packaged-goods companies in the late 1990s and spearheaded the marketer's Home Solutions News online relationship program. Even so, he told the company's board in 2002 that online advertising wasn't likely to make an impact anytime soon. "People didn't want to have a relationship with their toilet-bowl cleaner," Mr. Kulik said, plus lack of broadband made video ads virtually impossible.

This may not have seemed a politically astute message for the company's director of business-to-consumer internet marketing. But it did help advance his career. He got sent to Turkey to become marketing director and began working on getting more people to use and buy dishwashers, ultimately helping RB make Turkey the No. 4 market for its dishwasher detergent brand Finish and increase sales more than six times.

Sales of RB's Finish dishwashing products are down, but the company is relying on digital media to boost growth.
Sales of RB's Finish dishwashing products are down, but the company is relying on digital media to boost growth.

Turkey was already a big market, with higher household penetration for dishwashers than the U.K., he said. But many people got the appliances as wedding gifts and rarely used them, thinking they were expensive and used too much water. Mr. Kulik began a campaign showing dishwashers actually use less water and cost less to run than hand washing, which increased usage and also helped double household penetration of the appliances.

So what do digital marketing players need to know about Mr. Kulik? Well, he's a poster child for everything RB's culture wants to be -- polyglot, entrepreneurial, willing to quickly admit mistakes, learn fast and move on.

He joined what was then Benckiser in 1994 as an intern in the Czech Republic, put in charge of securing a trademark for a new detergent. What he was given -- Tornado -- was already taken by Unilever. So Mr. Kulik's boss gave him a small budget to hire a firm to find another one, which he did -- Perla. By 26, Mr. Kulik was the youngest member of the company's top 400 executives.

Mr. Kulik said he jumped at the chance to come to the U.S. to replace Mr. Lacik. "The U.S. is the champion league of marketing," he said. "It's also very aggressive. When you launch a program, the trade gives you six months." Case in point is Finish Quantumatic, a dishwash device Mr. Kulik believes is still the future of dishwashing, but which has lost considerable shelf space in year two.

On the other hand, the Lysol No-Touch hand soap dispenser launched last year already is an $80 million to $100 million retail business. As Mr. Kulik sees his biggest challenge to be reversing a trend toward lower household penetration in RB's household categories, the market could use more of those -- and a Turkish dishwasher story or two.

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