Kristina is 18 and from Prague. She’s an au pair in Chiswick.
Charles and Fiona hired her through an agency. She looks after their two
lovely children, Henry and Harriet, for which she gets pounds 40 a week
plus board and lodging. But the money doesn’t go far in London so, since
Henry and Harriet are at school from 9am to 3pm, Kristina puts an ad in
the newsagent’s window: ’Au pair seeks housework/cleaning duties. Two to
three hours a day. Reasonable rates.’ Apocryphal? I doubt it. Even if we
don’t employ a Kristina we probably know someone who does.
As of last week, however, the Kristinas of this world are under
The source is an unlikely one: Lever Brothers, which last week announced
it was setting up Myhome, a domestic services company that plans to
supply branded dry cleaning and laundry services as well as home
Now it’s not a move without sense. Just as the US railroad companies
went bust because they thought they were in the train business, not the
transportation business, Lever has discovered that its customers don’t
want soap powder or bleach but clean clothes and clean sinks. So why not
actually do the cleaning for them?
Now add in two other factors. First, we are increasingly affluent but
we’re also increasingly time-starved. More of us are therefore prepared
to pay for others to do our drudge work - hence the rise of the Kristina
factor. Second, compared with Lever’s normal markets, which are mature
to the point of static, domestic services is not only growing fast but
also carries margins double those in the soap business.
By branding the Myhome concept - its first products are the Persil
laundry and dry-cleaning services and Jif home cleaning - Lever can
maximise the heritage and goodwill inherent in the names a step
That’s the theory. And Lever isn’t the first company with a
manufacturing or FMCG background to seek to migrate its brands into
Nestle operates Nescafe-branded cafes in motorway stations; Ford has
already made its ambitions clear with the purchases last year of
Kwik-Fit and Hertz and a joint venture in insurance with Norwich
It’s an interesting idea, one certainly in tune with the idea that the
companies that will succeed are those that get closest to their
Can we thus envisage Blockbuster getting into babysitting services (plus
a video for the kids), Tesco as a provider of dinner-party catering or
B&Q providing gardening and home maintenance? Again, it makes sense.
But logic and credibility don’t always go hand in hand or, to put it
another way, isn’t Lever taking a risk by getting away from its core
This is especially pertinent for companies such as Lever and Ford whose
background is in mass production, not service, and especially not
service of the highly personal variety.
You’ve got to applaud Lever for trying, but this feels like a leap too
far - especially if, based on the price Myhome quoted me, it’s charging
three times what I pay Kristina.