Persil Tablets were introduced in May 1998.
The real battle comes now, however, with P&G set to launch an April counterattack with the Europewide introduction of Ariel Discs.
These pre-measured tablets are more expensive than regular laundry detergents, but are marketed as convenient and less messy. The individually wrapped tablets are put in a net bag and placed on top of the laundry in the washing machine.
Tablets account for 10% of the U.K.'s $1.5 billion detergent market, according to Information Resources Inc., and Unilever predicts that will rise to 20% by yearend.
DEMAND WAS THERE
In the U.K., pre-launch research for Persil Tablets showed people consider doing laundry a chore.
"They want it as simple and uncomplicated as possible, and the logical thing is for [soap to be in] the tablet format," said a spokesman for Unilever's Lever Bros. subsidiary. "The demand was already out there."
In subsequent consumer feedback, "people have cited convenience, no measuring and excellent cleaning and care as the reasons they like Persil Tablets so much," said John Ballington, Lever's corporate and consumer affairs director.
"The response we have had to Persil Tablets has been one of the most amazing for any product we have launched previously," he added.
P&G will begin its European rollout of Ariel Discs in the U.K., where the product has been in test since April 1998 in two north England towns, Grimsby and Cleethorpes.
The marketer wouldn't disclose further details; Saatchi & Saatchi, London, handles Ariel in the U.K.
EXTENDING THE TECHNOLOGY
Unilever is attempting to regain the initiative by extending its tablet technology to its Persil Colour Care, Surf and Radion detergent brands.
Persil Colour Care and Surf are only available in the U.K., but Lever Bros. also sells Radion in Greece, Switzerland and Ireland.
The company declined to discuss marketing of the brand extensions, except to say there will be a "significant promotional campaign" in the U.K.
J. Walter Thompson Co., London, handles the Persil brand in the U.K. Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, London, handles Surf and Radion in all European markets.
In addition to marketing the Persil Tablets in the U.K. and Ireland, Lever has introduced the tablet format to France, Greece, Spain and Portugal under the Skip brand; to Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark and Finland under the Omo name; to Sweden as Via; to Turkey as Omo Matik; and to Italy as Bio Presto.
UNILEVER SPENDING UP$225 MIL
Last week, Unilever said it had boosted marketing spending by $255 million, to $6 billion, in 1998, with $3.2 billion of that directed to media advertising.
Europe and the U.S. were the main beneficiaries of that rise in advertising and promotion, mainly due to Persil Tablets in Europe and, in the U.S., to its Thermasilk shampoo.
Marketing budgets accounted for 11.5% of sales in Europe and 20% in the U.S., the company said.
Lever claims that in the U.K., Persil Tablets have helped boost that brand's share from 20% to 26% of the market in the past year, pushing ahead of Ariel's 20.5%, according to IRI.
Lever lost market leadership to P&G after it was forced to withdraw its Persil Power in 1994 when its patented "accelerator" ingredient was found to weaken