Commentary: Soft soap in a hard sell

The rubber gloves have come off in a market-share battle for Britain's washing-up liquids. The opposing sides, Procter & Gamble and Unilever's Lever Brothers, are old enemies. Between them they own most of the world's leading names in detergents and their feud will probably last as long as Captain Kirk's with the Klingons. But the latest bout of skirmishing has broken out over Britain's kitchen sinks.

For some years Fairy Liquid, a P&G brand, has gradually tightened its grip on the pounds 120m washing-up liquids market. But as the actress Nanette Newman gushed about Fairy's gentleness on hands and its longer-lasting qualities, Lever was plotting revenge.

Out came Robbie Coltrane, with his bottle of Persil Liquid so powerful that it could wash the grease off his bike. Less than two years after its launch, Persil Liquid has won a 6 per cent share at the expense of its much older rival.

Stung by the upstart's success, P&G is hitting back with a new, stronger formulation to protect its 45 per cent share. The name has been changed to Fairy Excel, backed up by a pounds 10m advertising campaign and, unusually, a recall of the old version from supermarket shelves.

It is unlikely that Lever will stand idly by. Market share is critical to success in big-selling household products such as baked beans and soap powers. A swing of a few percentage points in one brand's sales can mean millions won or lost in profits. In a fast-moving world, consumers' loyalty to brands is a bulwark against rivals.

Launching new brands, particularly in a recession, is also becoming dearer. That has prompted the use of existing names with 'cross-branding'. Lever has achieved this by extending the Persil brand from detergents into washing-up liquids. So far it is succeeding, but wait for the media blitz from P&G.

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