UNILEVER RAISES STATURE IN HAIRCARE;THINNING OUT OF AD AGENCY RANKS MAY ALSO FOLLOW BUYOUT OF CURTIS

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With the long-coveted Helene Curtis Industries under its wing, Unilever becomes a major force in the global haircare market.

But how the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate manages the new businesses it acquired last week may ultimately be determined by an embryonic reorganization plan that could include a consolidation in Unilever's agency roster. Niall FitzGerald, a member of the special committee and the anointed successor to Unilever Chairman Michael Perry, has been studying plans for a global reorganization (AA, Jan. 8).

Inside Unilever, the question now appears to be whether the company, which spends about $2.1 billion on advertising worldwide, will line up its business by category or by region on a global basis.

EMULATING P&G?

"Like Procter & Gamble, Unilever will go to a panregional organization instead of by product category," said PaineWebber analyst Andrew Shore. "If you asked P&G which company would be the biggest threat by buying Curtis, it would be Unilever."

Through brands like Suave, Finesse and Salon Selectives, Curtis-which annually spends $93 million on U.S. advertising via DDB Needham Worldwide, New York, and Bayer Bess Vanderwarker, Chicago-makes Unilever a player in U.S. categories where previously it was not. It becomes No. 1 in the $897 million conditioner market and No. 2 in the $1.5 billion shampoo category.

And Unilever will boost its tiny presence in the $1.4 billion antiperspirant/deodorant market with Curtis' Degree, which has an 11.4% share, according to Information Resources Inc.

CURTIS' STRENGTH IN U.S.

Of Curtis' $1.2 billion in sales, all but $458 million is in the U.S. In overseas markets it posted a loss of $5.7 million in 1995; it's highly profitable in the U.S.

Unilever has tried and failed several times to crack into U.S. shampoos and conditioners.

"Curtis always had a fairly strong business in the U.S. Where it ran into trouble is international, because it had neither the critical mass nor strong infrastructure from which to build," said Gary Stibel, principal at the New England Consulting Group.

QUICK MOVES

Unilever will move quickly toward reorganization, said industry consultant Allan Mottus. "Rather than being organized like a package-goods company, they have been structured like the Dutch trading company they were founded as-all over the lot," he said.

That also appears to be Unilever's approach to agencies. In the 1980s, after acquiring Chesebrough-Pond's, Unilever moved from three core shops-J. Walter Thompson Co., Lintas Worldwide and McCann-Erickson Worldwide-to four, including Chesebrough's Ogilvy & Mather.

Even Curtis agency DDB Needham-whose sister agency BBDO Worldwide works on Unilever's Caress soaps and Sunlight dishwashing liquids in the U.S.-has been picking up business overseas from Unilever.

Some insiders believe Unilever may actually be prepared to take on a fifth global agency network such as DDB Needham. Others contend a more likely scenario is that one of the current four global agencies could be dropped.

"It is conceivable that under a restructuring by category, agencies could be pared. The food group, for instance, has more than four agencies ... and some people might prefer to see that reduced," said one Unilever executive.

Laurel Wentz contributed to this story.

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