As dirty tricks rows go, they do not come much dirtier. The manufacturer of Andrex toilet roll has been accused of trying to discredit a new rival brand, Charmin, by raising concerns about its "flushability".
Andrex, best known for its associations with labrador puppies, is the long-term market leader in lavatory rolls. Despite the advent of quilted, scented and even moist rivals, Kimberly-Clark, the makers of Andrex, has kept its soft tissue sheets ahead.
Until, that is, the launch last month of Procter & Gamble's Charmin, which prides itself on its superior "wet strength". With a cuddly bear advertising logo, and a £27m promotional budget, P&G's lavatorial upstart is claimed to have already captured some 10 per cent of the £650m market. So when a story appeared last week in the trade magazine Marketing Week saying P&G was facing calls to withdraw its product, over fears that it could cause serious sewerage system blockages, it was perhaps natural that P&G would look toward Kimberly-Clark.
The article quoted water companies as being "concerned" that Charmin did not biodegrade in the normal way and said that the Association of Makers of Soft Tissue Products had called an emergency meeting last weekend to discuss the issue. It also quoted Kimberly-Clark as saying it had decided not to go ahead with its own "wet strength" product over fears of sewage pipe blockages. It was, the story said, concerned that blockages arising from Charmin could be blamed on Andrex if consumers were using it when their drain overflowed.
Gary Cunningham, public affairs director for P&G, said the facts about its toilet roll had been twisted to produce a story which was "sensationalist and wrong". "The Marketing Week article contained a lot of inaccuracies. Most of the people that were quoted we went back to talk to and they dismissed it and said they hadn't been concerned," he said.
Mr Cunningham initially accused Kimberly-Clark of a "dirty tricks campaign" prompted by fear of competition, although he has since tried to play down the heated and personal nature of the dispute. "Things are tense between the two companies because we're going into toilet tissue for the first time. It's a competitive marketplace, with very fierce competition, and people don't like having their toes trodden on." Charmin, he stressed, had not received any complaints in Britain or the United States, where it has been available for some years.
Kimberly-Clark yesterday denied it had been involved in a dirty tricks campaign, but said there were "genuine concerns" about Charmin. A spokeswoman said: "The reason that the industry is getting involved is that we're all capable of converting to 'wet strength', we all have the technology, but we feel it would be irresponsible to do so."
David Benady, deputy editor of Marketing Week, said the magazine was standing by its story, but declined to say who its sources were. He said: "The story doesn't misrepresent anybody. It simply reports Kimberly-Clark's comments and the concerns of those in the water industry, who wanted evidence that Charmin wasn't going to block up the system. P&G should be trying to address the issue rather than rubbish their rivals.
"They are the first to point out the shortcomings of their rivals' products."
It is possible that the row will soon be history. The trade body and its associated companies will "within weeks" agree on a standard testing procedure, and agreed measurement criteria for lavatory paper dissolvability.
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