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Persil Brand Profile

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So who makes best-selling laundry detergent Persil? Unilever. No, Henkel. No, both of them, actually. The answer depends on where you live. The biggest household marketers in the UK and Germany actually split ownership of the trademark between them. Unilever controls the brandname in the UK, Ireland, France and New Zealand, while Henkel has it almost everywhere else, including the US where it was officially launched for the first time in 2015. Unilever markets the Persil formula in most of these other markets as Omo. Neither company particularly relishes the split ownership but occasional attempts by either one to buy out the other have regularly led to a polite but firm refusal. But at least both are united in their opposition to US giant Procter & Gamble.

Competitors

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Competitors

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Analysis

Unilever markets its lead detergent brand under the Persil name in the UK, Ireland, France and New Zealand. Just about anywhere else in the world the company packages a similar product under a different name, usually Omo or Skip or Via. All four brands are marketed under the same global "Dirt is Good" banner. Meanwhile Henkel operates the Persil brand everywhere else, not just Germany and Austria (where it is undisputed market leader) and most of the rest of Europe, but also markets as far-flung as the Middle East, Taiwan and Kazakhstan. Both companies are involved in a head-to-head struggle for leadership in their individual markets, while also facing off the might of US soap giant Procter & Gamble. Even if Persil gives its respective owners leadership of the sector in the UK and Germany, Procter & Gamble's broad array of brands gives it ultimate control of the market.

In both of its main markets, the Persil brandname is held in enormous affection by consumers, and regarded with a considerable degree of trust that has not been extended to more recent launches. Much of this relies on the brand's strong heritage, dating back before World War II. In the UK, Persil was the first washing powder to advertise on television (in 1955), and the first to show a man doing the washing (although not until 1987). It was also the first to launch a version without potentially allergic enzymes, marketed as Persil Non-Biological. Unilever's marketing information claims that 80% of British consumers asked to name any laundry detergent will say Persil first.

Within the UK specifically, Unilever's Persil is still the leading fabric care brand, but its #1 position in the broader household cleaning sector was lost in 2006 to P&G's Fairy brand, which has expanded its range from a traditional base in dishwashing liquids into the laundry sector. Persil remains the leading brand in the laundry powder, tablets and capsules segments, positioned at the upper end of the laundry detergent market by pricing. It has been especially successful in recent years with concentrated liquid Persil Small & Mighty. In addition to its core formats, the brand has also been extended into a variety of other products including fabric conditioner and specialist formulations. Responding to the assault from Fairy, Persil also established its own washing up liquid variant in 2010, followed by Persil PowerPro automatic dish tablets in 2013. Both dishwashing products are produced under license by sub-contractor McBride. In 2011, matching a strategy already exploited successfully by P&G in the US, Unilever launched its first two-in-one combination in the UK, Persil 2in1 with Comfort.

For 2015 (year to Oct), Nielsen estimated total UK sales for Persil of £247m, some £70m ahead of nearest detergent rival Ariel. P&G's Ariel, Bold, Fairy, Daz and Dreft have combined sales of around £470m, and the company has a 45% share of the local market in total, to Unilever's 35%. Unilever's second-string brand Surf was the #3 laundry brand, with sales of £131m. It has demonstrated steady continuous growth for several years as a result of the introduction of "glamour fragrances" like vanilla & black orchid or jasmine & black gardenia. In France, where Unilever's Skip competes neck-and-neck with Henkel's Le Chat for second place in the market behind P&G's Ariel, the Persil brand was introduced by the British company in an attempt to break the deadlock. However it remains one of the smaller brands in that markets, positioned as a budget detergent, with a different look and positioning.

In summer 2017, Unilever unveiled what it claims is the biggest innovation in laundry technology for more than a decade in the form of Powergems, lentil-shaped crystals which are said to be twice as concentrated as existing powders or liquids and more effective than capsules at cleaning. The technology is being launched first in the UK under the Persil banner, and if successful will be rolled out globally to other brands under Unilever's "Dirt is Good" umbrella.

Henkel leads the $1.3bn German detergents market with around 44% share. Procter & Gamble takes second place and Unilever comes third with detergents Sunil and Coral, and fabric conditioner Kuschelweich.

In an unexpected new development, Henkel's Persil made its appearance in the US for the first time in 2015 in an exclusive partnership with retail giant Walmart. That group began stocking the brand under the name Persil ProClean as a premium-priced competitor to P&G's Tide. It already stocked Persil in some stores in Mexico. The brand was extended into Canada as well in 2016.

Henkel declared combined global sales of €1.2bn from the Persil brand in 2015.

Ironically Omo, the brand by which Unilever's Persil is known in most international markets, actually predates Persil. It was first introduced by Lever Brothers in the UK in 1908, and rapidly extended into other countries. It adopted Persil's perborate formulation in the 1920s.

Background

In 1907, German company Henkel developed a new detergent, combining perborate and silicate. Unlike any previous laundry soap, this product was "self-acting", in that it cleaned by itself without requiring the traditional scrubbing and rubbing associated with washing. Henkel named it Per-sil after its two main ingredients. The new product was enormously successful in Germany. In its first year Henkel sold more than 4,700 tons of the new product, and increased staffing by 50% to cope with demand. In other countries, it sold local rights to other manufacturers. British company Crosfields acquired the rights to market Persil in the UK and France in 1909.

At the time the British market was dominated by Lever Brothers, whose traditional laundry soap Sunlight was the long-established market leader. After ten years of competitive marketing against Crosfields, Lever simply acquired its rival in 1919 and took over control of the Persil brand in the UK and France. In order to avoid future trade conflicts Henkel and Lever negotiated an agreement over further expansion of the Persil brand. Lever was allowed rights for the UK, France and their respective colonies. Henkel retained rights everywhere else. Meanwhile, Persil became one of Germany's best-known products during the 1920s, especially after the introduction of an advertising campaign featuring the "Weisse Dame" or white lady, and the slogan Persil bleibt Persil ("Persil stays Persil").

Lever moved aggressively into the US market in the 1930s, taking on local soap giant Procter & Gamble. However the latter countered with the introduction in 1946 of the first synthetic detergent, Tide, which offered not only superior washing power but at a lower price. It was the beginning of a fierce rivalry that has raged ever since, as the two companies vied with one another to market the best-selling brand. As both companies extended their operations around the world over the following decades, the rivalry intensified. In virtually all territories, Lever was obliged to adopt a new name for its lead brand, rebadging the Persil formula, generally under the names Omo or Skip. In the UK, the group consolidated its strong position with the introduction of the "Persil Washes Whiter" marketing campaign, which ran successfully for many years. Following World War II, Procter & Gamble's aggressive push into Europe gave it leadership in most territories except the UK and Germany. During the 1960s, P&G strengthened its position in the UK with the introduction of Bold and Daz, as well as the first effective low-suds powder designed for automatic washing machines. In 1989, Lever upped the stakes in the UK with the launch of its own third brand, Radion, but the latecomer never threatened the leading brands and was later dropped.

In 1994, the rivalry reached a new level after Lever Brothers announced the launch of its most important new product development yet. Persil Power was a completely new formulation of the company's core brand. According to Lever, Persil Power would wash out more tough stains than any other powder while still caring for all the clothes in the wash. It was more concentrated, so consumers would need about 20% less powder; and it claimed to smell even better than traditional Persil. But best of all, claimed Lever, it contained an "accelerator", a mysterious catalyst which apparently removed the heaviest stains at low temperatures. Having already spent £100m and 10 years researching the product, Unilever allocated a further £100m to a roll-out of Persil Power in the UK, accompanied by Omo Power and Skip Power in Europe.

But the campaign suddenly went horribly wrong when it was revealed that the mysterious Accelerator was in fact manganese. P&G, whose Ariel was at the time the #2 detergent in the market, countered that it had also experimented with manganese and found that it severely damaged fabrics. The company promptly issued a series of photographs of clothes washed in a manganese-based formulation, which showed the fabric virtually rotting away. Unilever initially threatened a libel suit, but after a series of independent tests was obliged to admit there could be a defect in the product "under extreme conditions". A new formula of Persil Power was introduced, with less manganese, but by then the damage was done. Persil's "whiter than white" reputation had been blackened and sales fell. Unilever was forced to withdraw the Power product altogether and watch in dismay as Ariel toppled Persil as the UK's leading washing powder. The company was also obliged to write off almost £260m in development and marketing costs.

Unilever spent the next two years thinking long and hard about what went wrong. Although the main focus of attention had been on the alleged "rotting" factor of Persil Power, research indicated that consumers had actually been put off more by the product's science-heavy marketing. Consumers, it seemed, wanted washing powder advertising to be about happy families, not men in white lab coats. In 1996, old-style Persil was relaunched with an equally old-style "caring mum" ad campaign. This won back some of the lost ground, but the whammy came two years later. In 1998, Unilever unveiled another new innovation, the first tablet-based detergent. Persil Tablets compressed all that messy loose powder into a single convenient block. Rushed out throughout Europe in the summer of 1998, the new format completely out-manoeuvred P&G. And right behind Persil / Omo tablets came similar reformulations of Unilever's other brands. Tablets turned out to be one of the biggest marketing successes of the late 1990s. More importantly the product won back Persil's leadership of the UK market, pushing Ariel back into second place. Henkel launched its own Persil Tabs in Germany and Austria a few months later; but it took Procter & Gamble almost a full year to unveil their own version, Ariel Discs.

In 2001, both Procter & Gamble and Unilever were head-to-head once again to launch the latest reformulation of their main brands with the near-simultaneous release of Persil Liquid Capsules and Ariel Liqui-Tabs. Persil announced first, but was beaten to market by Ariel by about two weeks. But, for now at least, Persil stays top of the market.

In 2004, Unilever launched a global marketing campaign for its Omo family of detergents, including Persil, claiming that "Dirt is good" because getting dirty is an essential part of the enjoyment of everyday life.

Last full revision 28th September 2016

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