'We're Not Your Father's Clorox'

CEO Don Knauss Talks Marketing

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Marketing has been a hot topic for CEOs of late.

How hot? Leaders of Procter & Gamble Co., L'Oréal, Mondelez and General Mills were going so far as to divulge how much of their media outlays go toward digital at the recent Consumer Analyst Group of New York Conference in Florida.

Clorox Co. Chairman-CEO Don Knauss applauds potty humor.
Clorox Co. Chairman-CEO Don Knauss applauds potty humor.

Clorox Co. Chairman-CEO Don Knauss didn't get so deep into the marketing weeds as others in his CAGNY presentation, but in an interview with Advertising Age beforehand, he said it's been on his mind.

Despite retailer-driven short-term pressure to lower prices and hike promotion, he said Clorox still aims to increase the share it spends on advertising. He sees more concentrated bleach and the rise of the U.S. Hispanic population creating big new opportunities for his flagship brand even as Burt's Bees makes Clorox more of a beauty company. And he's become a champion of edgier ads -- and tweets -- for Clorox.

"We're not your father's Clorox," said Mr. Knauss, 62, who started his career in brand management at P&G before moving on to marketing, sales and general management roles at PepsiCo and Coca-Cola. He became CEO at Clorox in 2006.

"One of the things we realized about advertising is if it isn't engaging it's not persuasive," he said. "And music and humor are great ways to engage people."

He's happy with Clorox's longtime agency DDB, San Francisco, which created the popular double-entendre ads for Liquid-Plumr. And he was a big fan of a Clorox tweet last month showing a make-believe new product, a Clorox double-headed toilet wand, for cleaning the odd side-by-side toilet cubicle found outside the press center at the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Don Knauss
Don Knauss

Mr. Knauss gives Burt's Bees, acquired in 2007, some credit for loosening Clorox up a bit, or at least spurring its movement toward more digital media, greater environmental consciousness (such as lowering greenhouse gas emissions) and making it more of a beauty company.

He also sees the continued success of Burt's -- even as other big players complain about weakness in the U.S. mass beauty market -- as a clear sign that uniting everything from big jugs of bleach with Hidden Valley Ranch dressing and little tubes of lip balm under the company's "health and wellness" banner can work.

While Burt's may be growing robustly, sales have slowed for much of Clorox's business. Mr. Knauss blames the unusually cold weather in much of the U.S. some. But he also believes, based on discussions with retailers, that their concern over lagging customer traffic is another root cause.

"You're seeing more discounting, certainly from manufacturers like us but also from private labels, as retailers strive to get traffic into stores," he said. That's a phenomenon he expects to last through the balance of this calendar year and maybe into 2015.

Even so, Clorox still has a long-term target of cutting other costs to get from spending 9%-10% of sales on marketing up to the 10%-11% range.

Some of that efficiency involves steps like Clorox took in late 2012 to make bleach 33% more concentrated. Besides the transportation savings, it's led to higher sales, with a 14% increase in the last July-September quarter that was the best for bleach "since Truman was president," Mr. Knauss said.

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