Unilever introduced the ingredient in April in the Netherlands in its Omo Power detergent (AA, April 11, et seq.). Rival Procter & Gamble Co. first tried to stop Unilever from introducing the detergent technology and now is doing its best to discredit the Accelera- tor as destructive to clothes.
"We've put a huge amount of research into this, and our new products offer even better performance, combined with greater economy and major benefits for the environment," said Andrew Seth, managing director of Lever Bros., Unilever's detergent subsidiary.
Next month, Unilever adds the catalyst containing manganese to its Radion and Surf powder concentrate brands in the U.K., backed by an ad campaign breaking several weeks later, a company spokeswoman said. Ogilvy & Mather is the ad agency for Radion, marketed as a fresh-smelling, odor-fighting brand. The agency for low-price Surf is Foote, Cone & Belding.
The move is surprising considering the virulent and unprecedented attack by P&G over the Accelerator's addition to other Unilever brands-Persil Power in the U.K., Omo Power in the Netherlands and 10 others in European markets. In its public protest, the Cincinnati-based detergent rival inundated European journalists with independent lab results showing that clothes fall apart after repeated washing in Unilever's new Power detergent.
Unilever responded by lowering the manganese content and is currently replacing the original product with the new formulation.
Detergent experts now speculate the bitter battle between Unilever and P&G has arisen partly because a successful European detergent introduction would tempt Unilever to introduce a detergent containing manganese on P&G's home turf. Unilever hasn't done well in the U.S. detergent market and lacks a strong brand there.
Unilever is already claiming a European victory with the new ingredient. Last week, the company announced sales of Persil Power, its brand with manganese in the U.K., have enabled the overall Persil brand to overtake P&G's Ariel, until now the U.K.'s No. 1 detergent. The results were based on a three-week period.
According to Nielsen Scantrack figures released by Unilever, Persil trailed Ariel in mid-April with a 6.4% share of the U.K. concentrate powder detergent segment, compared with Ariel's 11.8%. But for the week ended June 4, barely one month after Persil Power's introduction, Persil's share of the market had risen to 10.7% and Ariel's was down to 10.3%, Unilever said.
Share for the entire Persil line-including liquid, powders and concentrates-rose to 30.2% from 26.5% for the same period, compared with a decline for Ariel to 26% from 28.3%.
Unilever's new move, however, is making another party take a more active role against the detergent.German competitor and detergent marketer Henkel hired an independent lab to test the new Unilever detergent. The results were released last week and showed that Omo Power, as the brand is called in the Netherlands, damages clothes after 12 washes.
A spokesman said Henkel is concerned both because it owns the Persil brand name in some European markets and because consumers sometimes switch brands, possibly exposing Henkel detergents to charges of damaging clothes.
However, the company doesn't plan to publicize its findings in any way.
All of this has left Unilever undeterred. In an attempt to counter the bad publicity from Henkel-and P&G-commissioned lab reports, Unilever is publicizing its own research among happy Persil Power users.
The company said that in U.K. street interviews between June 6 and 9 with 100 Persil Power buyers, 81% said they would definitely or probably buy the product again.
And 91% named at least one thing they liked about the product, with 80% citing cleaning performance and 40% the detergent's fragrance.
Unilever stressed that no one in the sample had complained of damaged clothes.