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JOHNANNESBURG-Faced with a stagnant market and consumer backlash against more expensive brand names during an economic downturn, Bob Gundry made a risky decision.

To maintain market leadership with Sta-Soft fabric softener, and despite notably poor results of refills for most other categories, the Colgate-Palmolive marketing manager of fabric care products decided to introduce a lower-priced refill.

To compound the risk, he accompanied this move with advertising that broke all the rules.

Mr. Gundry's gamble paid off. A year after introduction, the refill added 13 points to the total Sta-Soft share percentage, strengthening the already leading fabric softener brand to a 59% share of the $35 million market.

Behind his bold move were signs of trouble going back to 1992 when Sta-Soft, the market leader, started losing share. Mr. Gundry, 33, knew he had to do something.

Refills had never worked before in South Africa, and Colgate's experience with refills in other countries was mixed.

But "where it has worked best," says the soft-spoken Mr. Gundry, "has been where it was applied to a premium-priced product, rather than an economy brand. And Sta-Soft is a premium-priced product.

Concept testing found that one important success factor would be a meaningful saving-in this case, at least 50-cents over the regular pack.

Tests also indicated that even with this cost-saving there would remain a large number of customers who would not take the trouble to reconstitute the concentrate and place it in the original container, thus making the refill a better value even if it did save money. Even when initial test results were discouraging, Mr. Gundry "had a gut feel that it was going to work."

"We identified the obstacles and the concerns that needed to be addressed in the advertising," such as price and ease of reconstitution, he says.

In January 1993, Mr. Gundry introduced the refill, priced at about $1.09 compared to $1.60 for the normal bottle, and providing the same number of laundry uses.

A commercial by Young & Rubicam, Johannesburg, shows five-year-old Jethro Fisher talking (actually lip synching) directly to the camera for 50 seconds and helping his mum with the refill. He earnestly explains five ways in which the new Sta-Soft refill will help other mums, counting them on his chubby little fingers.

"We broke every rule in the book," says Mr. Gundry. "Instead of having one selling idea, we had five."

"The ad caught the imagination of the consumers and made the difference between an average launch and a really great one. It was a brilliant combination of product and advertising," he says.

Mr. Gundry is so pleased with the brand's progress that he plans to add other fragrances and to expand the refill pack through the southern African sub-continent. "The success gives one confidence to launch new concepts and take more of a risk," he says.

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