P&G's Venus: Goddess to Problem Child

Dogged by Trademark Litigation, Beloved Brand Hasn't Grown as Hoped

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The men's shaving business was the biggest attraction when Procter & Gamble Co. shelled out $57 billion nearly three years ago for Gillette, but it was no secret the giant marketer long had coveted women's brand Venus too.

VENUS DIVINE: Its 'smoother skin in five days' promise is straight out of P&G's number-based ad-claims playbook.

P&G executives were impressed by the brand's design -- which even before the deal they held up as some of the best work anywhere, much less in the package-goods field -- and later by its potential to expand into adjacent categories in skin care that were P&G's forte.

Yet more than two years after P&G closed the deal, plans to expand Venus, once considered among the most promising strategies for producing "revenue synergies" from the combination, still are unfolding slowly at best. Key executives working on the project have left the company, some say in frustration. And it's not clear when, if ever, Venus will become a personal-care megabrand.

In all but name
To date, the only thing to emerge from the effort is a fall launch of Pure Divine body wash in Canada, which shares the look, music and endorsement of Venus razor advertising but doesn't actually bear the brand name.

In an October presentation to shareholders, P&G Chairman-CEO A.G. Lafley held out the Canadian launch of Pure Divine as an example of synergies from the Gillette deal. Yet the small scope of the launch, absence of the Venus brand name and the decision to move into body wash ahead of extensions such as depilatories, shave preparations and body lotion have puzzled industry observers.

Though the Pure Divine launch met an internal deadline P&G had set for unveiling a Venus expansion within two years of the deal's close, the effort has been dogged by problems both internal and external, according to people familiar with it, which threaten to scuttle the once-promising global project.

Trademark woes
Not least of those problems is that P&G doesn't own the trademark to use the Venus brand on body lotion, soap or other cosmetics, even in the U.S. Kelemata, an Italian company, owns rights in that country for a Venus cosmetics brand that has been marketed since 1906. But it also filed for and won the trademark in the U.S. for such applications as cosmetics and body lotions in 2003, two years after the razor brand launched here.

A Mexican company, Fabrica de Jabon La Corona, has marketed soap there under the Venus brand and gained the U.S. trademark for Venus soap a few months after Venus razors launched in 2001.

Trademark issues haven't always stopped P&G. The company paid a reported $100 million to market Physique in the U.K. (another company held the rights to the name) after launching the hair-care brand in the U.S. in 1999 and before ultimately discontinuing the brand everywhere.

That, however, may be a painful memory for Mr. Lafley, who headed P&G's beauty business when Physique launched. Beyond that, Kelemata, in particular, has been extremely tough on the trademark issue and might require even more than the British owner of the Physique brand did to settle litigation, according to one person familiar with the matter.

Protecting Olay
Trademark wasn't the only issue, however. The team that worked on the Venus expansion faced a number of internal obstacles at P&G, according to an executive familiar with the situation, who claimed P&G executives resisted efforts to divert resources such as the best fragrances, other ingredients or marketing spending from the company's flagship Olay skin-care brand.

Olay, which gets roughly $1 million a day in measured media spending in the U.S. alone, has been the major success story in beauty care for P&G under Mr. Lafley and other key executives, including for Susan Arnold, president-global business units, and Gina Drosos, who now oversees P&G personal care. They led the effort to build the brand past $1 billion and now to nearly $2 billion in global sales.

Two key former Gillette executives who worked on the Venus expansion left P&G in September just before Pure Divine launched in Canada -- Mary Anne Pesce, former president-personal care, and Vimla Gupta, former marketing director on the project. Neither had announced a new position at the time they left P&G, and neither could be reached for comment, though Ms. Pesce previously declined to comment on the reasons for her departure.

Questioning acquisitions
Whether P&G ultimately can build Venus into an Olay-style powerhouse remains to be seen, though the company has about 70 billion reasons to hope it does. The $70 billion P&G has spent on beauty and personal-care acquisitions under Mr. Lafley has come under increasing scrutiny of late on Wall Street as growth of P&G's beauty and Gillette businesses have lagged behind the rest of the company in recent quarters.

A P&G spokeswoman said there's "a highly effective strategy in place" for Venus. Pure Divine ads from Omnicom Group's BBDO, New York, carry a "smoother skin in five days" promise straight out of P&G's number-based ad-claims playbook. The launch has been equal to or greater than those in recent years of P&G's Olay Ribbons body wash or Unilever's Dove Cream Oil at similar stages of their rollouts, she said in a statement.

"We believe creating a sister brand to Venus gives us more freedom in extending into our beauty-care adjacent categories," she said. "After viewing Pure Divine TV, print and in-store materials, consumers associated them with the goddess equity built by the Venus razor heritage, but didn't necessarily limit the product's applicability to shave-only line extensions."
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