UNILEVER CHIEF: REFRESH BRANDS

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Sir Michael Perry, chairman of Unilever and president of the U.K.'s Advertising Association, discussed the company's experience with global branding and offered advice for keeping brands alive in an address July 7 in London. Here are text excerpts:

Like most major manufacturers, a growing proportion of our business is outside our home markets. For Unilever, 25% now lies outside Europe and North America. ... Brands in these markets are a powerful symbol of a new emphasis on economic dynamism and consumer freedom. ... If we ever forget the way consumer needs can vary, these new markets will remind us in spades. For example, in Eastern Europe it has not made best sense to leap in, selling the most sophisticated brands, which incorporate leading edge technology.

After the initial flush of enthusiasm for the latest in Western consumer gadgetry, East European attitudes have changed. Consumers are nervous of newfangled products. They want brands that are affordable and in keeping with their own tastes, values and pockets-that are realistic in their expectations.

Take the detergents market in Poland. We launched Omo with a great flourish; P&G entered with Ariel. But today it is a local brand which we purchased and refreshed, Pollena 2000, which leads the market-not just because it's cheaper, but because it chimes with ... local values. ...

All our experience suggests that the concept of an automatic, preordained brand life cycle is nonsense. Brands can be as old as generations, but they can still be constantly refreshed through innovation and change.

Let me sum it up by suggesting a checklist for brands' success. It's not perfect, it's not complete and it's certainly not easy.

Audit brand performance. Do it continuously and don't kid yourselves. ... Analyze your markets systematically by category and country to see where opportunities really lie.

Keep up a sustained attack on costs. Find ways to do it constantly but sensibly. Don't bleed the business ... Perhaps you can internationalize production and streamline your supply chain ... [But remember] concentrated supply does not dictate homogenized demand. It's not a rationale in itself for going hell-for-leather for the global brand.

Keep innovating. ... The only way your brand will continue to provide value relative to competition is through ... continuous R&D investment and to getting the result to market faster.

We want to build a new partnership with retailers. We go along to them with a simple question. `How can we work together to maximize sales and margins across a whole product category?' If we tackle this constructively, and in concert, our brand can act as a coat hanger for the retailer's own brand. Instead of confrontation.

Keep the focus on the consumer. ... We've all become fatally obsessed with issues of the process and questions of management. ... Theoretical barriers between sales, marketing, research and production need to be swept away, but let's not forget [who] we're doing it all for.

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