P&G sends in troupes to fight laundry wars

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The company that invented the soap opera is turning to live drama of a less predictable sort to sell laundry detergent in Canada, Argentina and possibly the U.S.

Procter & Gamble Co. earlier this month began sending nine impromptu theatrical troupes into Wal-Mart Stores, Costco Cos., Safeway, Loblaw Cos. and other mass merchandisers, club stores and supermarkets around Canada. There, they mingle like ordinary shoppers until they suddenly break into 2-minute mock fashion-show skits promoting liquid Cheer. The troupes will also do what P&G calls their "performance advertising" on busy public squares and street corners throughout May and June, with a total of 400 performances. They'll be at each site for a total of 4 hours, but the number of performances varies depending on such factors as customer traffic flow.

Only P&G and the store managers know exactly when guerrilla theater may erupt near the Cheer endcap in the laundry aisle.

SPONTANEOUS LOOK

The routines are meant to look as spontaneous as possible. Actors, dressed in colorful clothes to reinforce Cheer's positioning for care of colored fabrics, simply leave their shopping carts in the aisle and converge onto the mock fashion runway, where the emcee has set up a small stereo sound system. The skits don't include product demos or heavy-handed pitches, other than mentions by the emcee that the garment on each model was washed in Cheer.

"There's a spontaneity and human quality to the concept that just isn't possible with other forms of advertising," said Rob Assimakopoulos, brand manager for Cheer in Canada.

Leo Burnett, Toronto, developed the performance advertising and is in the process of developing other elements of an integrated campaign along the same lines.

Cheer's North American ad theme is "Cheer loves your clothes as much as you do," which P&G is evolving into the simpler "We love what you're wearing" tagline in North America. The brand currently doesn't have ads on the air or in print in Canada, but the performance advertising campaign is "topspin" for an upcoming new Canadian branding effort, Mr. Assimakopoulos said.

LOVING CLOTHES

"Performance advertising is working in tandem with the whole media plan," he said. "We'll have a combination of TV and print to pick up the performance aspects of the theme." Though details of the TV and print components aren't final, Mr. Assimakopoulos said "the TV will dramatize people who love their clothes."

The performance idea isn't just to make impressions on customers in the stores but also to generate buzz and even consumer participation, said a spokesman for P&G in Toronto. P&G has integrated a publicity campaign into the effort, getting coverage in the Toronto Star and Canadian TV newscasts.

"Sometimes consumers will join in," the spokesman said, citing an appearance in Toronto where an elderly customer at a Wal-Mart decided to join in and walk down the aisle serving as an imaginary catwalk. "It's fun and we hope from this when [consumers] go home they say to their friends and family: `Hey, I was walking in a Wal-Mart today and all of a sudden there's this fashion show that just breaks out in front of me.' "

RETAILER `PARTNERSHIP'

It "also helps form a partnership between us and our retailers, because it gives them good participation in our marketing," said Mr. Assimakopoulos. "The store aisles have the kind of spontaneous human quality that suits itself to the execution."

P&G originally tried performance advertising in Argentina as part of the Latin America rollout of its Ariel laundry detergent brand. There, acting troupes mostly performed on public buses rather than retail stores.

There are no plans to bring the concept to the U.S., the spokesman said, though he said some in the company "have expressed interest."

Cheer is the No. 3 brand in Canada, behind P&G's Tide and Unilever's Wisk, but Liquid Cheer, the product specifically touted by the performances, has only been in the country since 1999. The skits are meant to help boost the May launch of Liquid Cheer Complete with color-safe bleach.

Einson Freeman, a Paramus, N.J., promotion marketing agency, tried a similar performance marketing campaign last year in the U.S. called "Plum Crazy for Prunes," for Sunsweet Prunes.

That campaign aimed at capitalizing on consumer research that showed more consumers say they like plums than prunes, but they don't often know that prunes are dried plums.

For its effort, Einson Freeman hired actors in Sunsweet Prune T-shirts to go to high-traffic areas to do performance art of "people going crazy on the street" as they held up banners saying "We're going plum crazy for prunes." Others worked the crowd handing out foil-packet prune samples and coupons to help them make the connection with the product, said CEO Jeff McElnea.

The promotion, in conjunction with public relations, couponing and in-store promotions resulted in "double-digit sales increases," he said, for Sunsweet Prunes in the dozen U.S. markets where it ran compared to control markets.

"Performance art is definitely of the moment, and it can be very effective if the population concentrations are sufficient to pay out the expense," added Mr. McElnea, who joins Satmark Sales Co. as president in June.

Word-of-mouth about the performances are crucial, too, he said, as are publicity impressions, which he said were good in the case of the prune campaign, including features on local evening TV newscasts in each of the markets. But he added that performance marketing needs to be part of an integrated effort to work well.

MORE EXPERIMENTATION

"There's much more experimentation going on now," among package goods, pharmaceutical and other marketers," Mr. McElnea said. "You're seeing more guerrilla marketing in urban markets, wild postings, leafleting on streets and all kinds of in-and-out-of store themed, branded events to intersect with consumers where they work and play, not just where they shop."

As for Sunsweet's particular promotion, Mr. McElnea said the marketer did not get complaints from mental health advocates because crazy is "a word from the vernacular that's romantic and common usage." He added, "If we had said `insane' or anything that would seem disparaging, that might have happened."

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