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Persil to relaunch with new 'caring' image

The washing powder market braced itself yesterday for a return of the soap wars as it emerged that Unilever is to put millions of pounds into relaunching Persil. The product will essentially remain the same but be marketed in a new "caring" way.

It will also aim for the men's market by becoming the first washing powder to be heavily advertised in men's magazines.

Proctor & Gamble, the company's arch-rival, yesterday refused to disclose what its future plans for Ariel washing powder might be, but did not rule out retaliation.

Ariel took up the position of market leader in 1994, following the Persil Power fiasco, when the brand suffered a massive loss of consumer confidence. The "whiter than white" image of the washing powder giants was challenged in the following weeks as Proctor & Gamble resorted to displaying men's underwear which it claimed had been ruined by Persil Power and the detergent was eventually withdrawn.

The problem with Persil Power was its patented "accelerator" agent, which reacted with certain dyes. For this reason, Unilever is steering clear of high-tech developments heralded by men in white coats and trying to achieve a trustworthy, family image. "We want to emphasise that Persil cares," said a spokeswoman for Unilever.

"One of the strengths of products like Persil is that they have been around for generations and people might remember them from their childhood or their parents using them," said Simon Sherwood, managing director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, the advertising agency. "Technology and modernity can be very intimidating, so it may prove very clever to get away from that."

The back-to-basics approach will be embodied by retro-packaging.

The 1996 box of Persil will look "very similar" to the 1968 box, featuring a five-year-old boy in a football kit. "Mrs Mary Holiday", to whom 1960s consumers were invited to write for washing advice, is now a hotline that 1990s customers can ring to ask how to get red wine out a white shirt, for example.

While going back to basics on image, however, the campaign will break new ground with advertisements in GQ and Loaded magazines, featuring three young men flat-sharing.

Mr Sherwood said he believed this was an "excellent and innovative idea", but was worried that Unilever might try to be "too hip and groovy" with the campaign. "There is a real danger of them trying to make Persil too trendy and that could backfire horribly," he said.

News analysis, page 15