OPINION: MILLS ON ... UNILEVER’S BRAND CULL

In Speed, the baddie, Dennis Hopper, has planted a bomb on a moving bus. To save the passengers, our hero and heroine, Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, have to manage the transfer of the passengers to another bus that is travelling alongside it.

In Speed, the baddie, Dennis Hopper, has planted a bomb on a moving

bus. To save the passengers, our hero and heroine, Keanu Reeves and

Sandra Bullock, have to manage the transfer of the passengers to another

bus that is travelling alongside it.



Bomb apart, the analogy is one way of illustrating the task facing

Unilever and its agencies as it contemplates the culling of 1,200 of its

lesser brands, leaving it with a mere 400 so-called ’power’ brands.

Think of the passengers as consumers of the brands to be culled; the

’safe’ bus represents the surviving brands; and the agencies, who have

to shepherd the consumers across to the power brands, are Reeves and

Bullock.



Unilever says the 1,200 secondary brands represent only 10 per cent of

sales - yet this adds up to about pounds 2.7 billion a year. Of course,

some brands will be sold but many will be allowed to wither over time,

and these are the ones that are interesting in an advertising and

marketing context. By any measure, that’s an awful lot of sales and

individual consumer relationships and interactions for any brand owner

to give up voluntarily.



Of course, the analogy doesn’t apply to just Unilever, but to any

company whose portfolio of brands is too big to be manageable. Clearly

the same logic that is driving Unilever - the growing power of retailers

and the inefficiencies of supporting small or local brands - will be

apparent in the boardrooms of other packaged goods companies. But the

conclusion is unavoidable: there are too many brands around for them all

to survive. Logically enough, retailers will only stock the biggest.



The weakest must go.



So imagine I am a long-standing buyer of Brut’s Aquatonic aftershave,

one of the brands said to be on the Unilever hit-list. One day it’s

there, the next I can’t find it on the shelves because it’s been culled.

Do I buy instead some Old Spice, owned by Procter &Gamble, or do I buy

Lynx, owned by Unilever? Since I am an average consumer, I don’t know or

care who owns which of the possible substitutes - unless Unilever gives

me a reason to.



All this matters for Unilever, which has to figure out how to get

consumers to switch to its power brands rather than a rival’s. Meantime,

of course, P&G will be desperately wooing Brut buyers itself - making a

difficult task even harder. Now multiply it over several hundred brands

and the magnitude is, well, something to behold. Each brand will have

its own set of solutions, but they must surely go beyond above-the-line

’family-of-products’ type advertising to direct marketing, promotions,

special offers, cross-selling and database management.



The curious thing, according to the head of one Unilever agency, is that

nobody at client brand management level seems to have thought about this

yet. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?



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