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$300 MILLION WASHOUT UNILEVER STRUGGLES TO SAVE NEW POWER DETERGENTS

By Published on .

Unilever is frantically trying to salvage its $300 million advertising and promotional investment in a new pan-European detergent, but some marketing experts are already branding it the next "new Coke."

The Anglo-Dutch consumer products giant raced to put out newspaper ads last week in the U.K. and Netherlands asking consumers to ignore Procter & Gamble Co.'s highly publicized charges that the stain-fighting detergent, marketed under various names in different areas, rots clothes (AA, April 11, et seq.).

The first in a series of ads jointly created by J. Walter Thompson Co., London, and PPGH/ JWT, Amsterdam, is headlined: "Our reputation is on the line. That's just where we like it." Lintas Worldwide holds the account in the rest of Europe.

The newspaper ad promises money back to dissatisfied customers and a toll-free telephone number in both countries to answer questions. Original advertising not mentioning the issue continues to run.

In another effort to kill the controversy, Unilever this week starts rushing to stores a reformulated version that slightly reduces the manganese content-the ingredient P&G claims damaged clothes in a series of test results from independent labs in six countries.

But marketing experts wonder whether Unilever's move is too little too late. In the Netherlands, Franz van Lier, co-author of the book "Marketing Flops," said this parallels Coca-Cola Co.'s new Coke fiasco in 1985, when consumers rejected a new formula and the old version had to be brought back to save the brand.

Mr. van Lier's advice is to scrap the brand, called Omo Power in the Netherlands, and reintroduce the traditional Omo concentrate detergent it replaced.

Freek Holzhauer, author of marketing books and editor of a Dutch marketing magazine, agreed: "They should buy pages in the newspapers to announce withdrawal of Omo Power, admit their mistake as soon as possible and inform the public that good old Omo is still available."

The influential Dutch Consumers' Council is telling consumers not to buy Omo Power until the new version goes on sale.

But Unilever's move to reformulate its product hardly mollified P&G, which started its publicity barrage April 27 and is already denouncing the revised detergent.

"Simply lowering the level of the `accelerator' is no guarantee the problem will be solved," said P&G President John Pepper.

"The responsible action would be to remove the ingredient until it can be demonstrated to the public that the Power products are now safe and will not deposit active manganese residues on clothes," a P&G spokesman added.

As testament to its determination to derail Unilever, P&G has uncharacteristically bombarded journalists around Europe with copies of the lab reports and colorful photos of clothes full of holes from the Power detergent. P&G later admitted the pictures were of clothes that P&G-not the labs-test-washed using a Power detergent.

P&G even faxed journalists transcripts of a Swedish newscast in which a reporter aired the local Via Power commercial, then commented, "They forgot to mention the detergent's most significant characteristic: It destroys the clothes!"

P&G is instructing the labs it hired to test the Unilever brand at higher-than-recommended temperatures. As a result, Unilever is putting clear instructions on its new packs to wash at low temperatures.

Wim Selman, chief executive of Unilever detergent subsidiary Lever Bros. in the Netherlands, last week reaffirmed the company's faith in the new brand. But he did concede it should have emphasized on packs the need to wash in lower temperatures.

"That was not smart, but it's a detail and we're changing it," Mr. Selman said.

Unilever even tried to cast its mistake as a plus. In the U.K., where the product is called Persil Power, the company ran an ad in the touting, "From Persil, a cure for high temperatures."

Last month, Unilever dropped a related suit against P&G, filed in the Netherlands, that alleged trademark infringement and the use of untruthful statements.

Alarmed by P&G's attacks, German detergent maker Henkel, owner of the Persil brand name outside the U.K. and France in Europe, hastily put out a news release last week saying the Persil product it markets is not the manganese version.

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