Duracell unleashes attack in bare-knuckle battery brawl

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In an age of high-tech devices like digital cameras, low-tech and long-obsolete zinc-carbon "heavy-duty" batteries are making a surprising comeback, with sales up more than 30% in recent months over a year ago as consumers opt for cheap over powerful.

Now, facing rapid erosion of market share for its superior Duracell alkaline batteries to cells that go for a dollar or less in four packs, Gillette Co. is running an ad campaign aimed at the cheap batteries.

The new print and radio campaign from Acme Idea Co., South Norwalk, Conn., hearkens to the bare-knuckle battery ads of years past. One shows a package of rival Energizer Holdings' Eveready Super Heavy Duty batteries beside the headline: "Why do you think they're so cheap?"

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"It's been such a long time since anybody's really talked about the performance differences between the alkaline technology and cheaper heavy-duty technology that the consumer just doesn't know there is a difference," said Mark Bertolami, VP-marketing, Duracell.

Gillette research has shown some consumers believe heavy-duty batteries last longer than alkaline, he said. But in some high-drain devices, such as digital cameras, heavy-duty batteries may not function at all, he said.

Mr. Bertolami credits the surge of old fashioned, heavy-duty batteries to "a retailer-driven phenomenon," most notably at dollar stores.

Ironically, Gillette was forced to drop TV ads pitting Duracell against heavy-duty batteries in February 2002 after a lawsuit by Energizer, which claimed the ads implied the comparison was to rival alkaline batteries. At the time, Energizer argued heavy-duty batteries had such a small and shrinking market share that comparisons to them were irrelevant. The ads were the last for Duracell by Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, New York, before Acme won the account.

An Energizer spokeswoman said the company isn't advertising or promoting heavy-duty batteries but has responded to retailer demand for more heavy-duty offerings. "Heavy duties have such lower performance than alkaline that it's really just a niche area," said the spokeswoman.

Gillette is alone among major battery players in not offering heavy-duty batteries, which began to be displaced in 1959 by alkaline technology invented by Energizer.

Today, Energizer, No. 2 to Duracell, markets alkaline batteries under the Energizer name and Heavy Duty only under the Eveready name. No. 3 player Rayovac also has a small heavy duty business that got much bigger in recent months as Wal-Mart Stores gave the company a contract to supply semi-private-label zinc-carbon batteries.

Low-cost heavy-duty batteries, which retail for about half the price per cell of alkalines, made up only 2.8% of the $1.5 billion battery category for the 52 weeks ended Oct. 31, as measured by Information Resources Inc. But industry executives say those numbers greatly understate the size of the heavy-duty segment, which is heaviest in such fast-growing and unmeasured outlets as Wal-Mart and dollar stores.

Duracell lost one share point last quarter in alkaline batteries but three points in the broader general-purpose category, largely because of the surge of heavy-duty batteries, Gillette VP-investor relations Chris Jakubic said last month-a loss of as much as $60 million in retail sales last quarter alone.

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