Sainsbury takes detergent giants to the cleaners: A well-designed sub-brand makes an impact in washing powder wars

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The Independent Online
NOVON, Sainsbury's own-label washing powder, has been the supermarket group's first serious push into 'super-brand' territory - those product categories seemingly unassailable by own-label.

From a standing start in September 1992, Novon has captured 8 per cent of the pounds 900m detergent market in the UK. Within Sainsbury supermarkets it accounts for 30 per cent of detergent sales.

Millions of Sainsbury shoppers have switched from traditional brands made by the industry giants Procter & Gamble (Ariel, Daz and Bold) and Unilever (Persil, Surf and Radion). P&G and Unilever have each enjoyed more than 40 per cent of the market. Through aggressive spending on blanket television advertising, their blue-chip detergents have till now held their market share.

Previous attempts by supermarkets to launch sub-brands or own-label washing powder failed. Sainsbury tried with Wash & Care in the late 1980s. It flopped.

According to Michael Rosen, Sainsbury's non-food departmental director, the launch was half- hearted. 'It was a bit of an apology: we had an idea but we didn't know how to execute it.'

But the group was determined to crack the detergent market. It was accustomed to capturing an average of 55 per cent of any product category with its own-label lines. It didn't see why washing powder should be an exception.

'We realised something serious had to be done,' Mr Rosen said. They undertook market research to find out what customers wanted and were amazed to find seemingly trivial factors played a huge part in buying decisions.

Customers wanted smaller powder particles. They wanted a different fragrance. They wanted the powder to look white (rather than grey) as well as wash white. Sainsbury went to work with its manufacturer - believed to be the BP-owned McBride.

It also decided to lump all 42 detergent variations and packet sizes under one umbrella sub- brand. The mushrooming of choice has never been more obvious than in detergents, where buyers can opt for standard or concentrated, powder or liquid, biological or non-biological, with or without fabric conditioner. . .

The name Novon was chosen because it was palindromic (the same as Omo, Oxo and Mum), as well as memorable.

Research and development costs were less than pounds 2m, very modest compared to rivals. There was a product-specific advertising campaign, put together by Abbott Mead Vickers. Advertising costs for Novon have never risen above 3 per cent of retail sales, compared to as much as 10 per cent for manufacturers' brands.

'The real coup de grace was being able to do block merchandising - putting all the products in one block,' says Rosen. 'For once it looked like an extra detergent range.' Promotional Campaigns, a promotions agency, arranged the in-store demonstrations and samples. The product was priced competitively - as much as 25 per cent less than top- branded rivals.

Eighteen months later the detergent giants are starting to feel the pain. Close observers of their television advertising have spotted a subtle change in the message. Danny Baker, the ubiquitous television presenter who appears in Daz advertisements interviewing housewives on their doorsteps, has begun stressing its superiority over 'own brands' - competitors that would not have been mentioned two years ago.

(Photograph omitted)