Brand phase-out: Unilever culls Surf, folds brand into All

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Unilever is folding its 19-year-old Surf laundry detergent brand in the U.S. into the All brand starting early next year. The move is part of the global package-goods giant's five-year effort to streamline its portfolio and put more marketing muscle behind bigger brands.

Retailers said they have not been given a timetable for what they called a phaseout of Surf. But Unilever has said it hopes to largely finish eliminating its so-called "tail" brands by the end of 2004, when it completes its "Path to Growth" restructuring. So far, Unilever is two-thirds through culling 1,200 from its global portfolio of 1,600 brands. That may be winnowed further. Unilever U.S. President Charles Strauss said at the Association of National Advertisers conference last week that "It's my view that we'll end up focusing our resources on about 200 brands across the globe."

A Unilever spokeswoman said Surf's brand identity will continue in some form, including powdered detergents, "for the foreseeable future." But the goal is to add Surf's "fragrance heritage" to All's "strong heritage in cleaning," starting by combining the brands in liquid detergents next year.

Both are value brands, but All's strength is in liquids and in the Northeast and North Central, while Surf's traditional strength has been in the declining powder segment and in the South and Southwest. The spokeswoman said Unilever hopes to grow share despite merging Surf with All.

"All is one of our priority brands in North America," she said. "We're not getting rid of Surf. We're just expanding the All family." By combining Surf with All, along with recent expansion of All into fabric softeners and additives, Unilever aims to take All from the No. 3 brand in detergent to the No. 2 brand in U.S. laundry-care, including detergents and additives. Procter & Gamble Co.'s Tide is No. 1 in both categories currently, followed by P&G's Downy fabric softener in overall laundry care and Dial Corp.'s Purex in detergent.

"We've learned that our big brands have broad shoulders," Charles Strauss, president of Unilever U.S. said in an interview last year. "I think Unilever is making the shift away from category to brand thinking."

Unilever recently began selling club-store packs of Surf powder co-branded with All. The move is similar to what began earlier this year with Unilever's Rave hair-care brand, which is being absorbed by Suave.

Large and healthy

All is the largest and healthiest of Unilever's three U.S. detergent brands, with sales of $250 million, down 5.5% in the 52 weeks ended Sept. 8, according to Information Resources Inc. Surf was down 23.8% to $131.2 million, but still made up 22% of Unilever's $605.5 million IRI-measured detergent business. Wisk, Unilever's third brand, had sales of $224 million, down 11%. Those figures don't include Wal-Mart Stores or dollar or club stores, which represent more than a third of the category's estimated $5 billion to $6 billion in sales.

little support

Surf has had little ad support since 1997, when Unilever ran a creative, offbeat ad campaign from Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, New York, positioning it as the brand for people who hate doing laundry.

The brand is now ostensibly assigned to Interpublic Group of Cos.' Lowe Worldwide, New York, though it has received only $3,200 in measured media support since 1999, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR.

Unilever's overall IRI-measured market share fell 1.6 points to 16.4% in the 52 weeks ended Sept. 8, its lowest in decades. The second-runner in U.S. detergents has emphasized profit over share growth in the past year, a move Unilever Senior-VP of Investor Relations Howard Green recently termed temporary.

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