19 April 2007

Are your Harpics showing...?

Back in the 1970s, we all had a good snigger at the Durex joke. Australians knew Durex as a brand of sticky tape but elsewhere in the world it was a condom. This created the premise for hilarious stories about cultural miscommunication. You know the kind of thing: Did you hear about the Australian tourist who went into a chemist shop in London and asked for "a packet of Durex, sticky on both sides"?

And Americans who come here still find it funny that we use Jif to clean the bathroom, because in the US it's a brand of peanut butter... not so good on the porcelain!

Now comes the case of "White & Shine" - perhaps not such a problem for consumers, but a whole lot less amusing for the companies concerned. Macleans - the toothpaste people - and Harpic - the toilet cleaning people - have virtually simultaneously launched product variants with identical names.

While the risk that consumers will be harmed as a result of confusion seems relatively low (although you never know what some people do!), the shared name poses a real business risk for Macleans. No-one who makes toothpaste wants their product to be associated in any way with toilets or even toilet cleaners. Consumers are very sensitive when it comes to oral care products - it's a highly sensory category, as Pond's found when it tried to launch Pond's Toothpaste (as documented in Matt Haig's book "Brand Failures"). It's amazing how many people who hear the name "Pond's Toothpaste" instantly react with a "Yuk!" as they taste and feel greasy Pond's Cold Cream - a powerful association - in their mouths.

Anyway, I say shame on both Macleans and Harpic for choosing such a boringly obvious and descriptive name for a product variant. My prediction for "White & Shine"? Expect the Macleans version to disappear very quickly. Everyone wants white and shiny teeth, but no-one wants to use a dunny brush!

16 April 2007

Update: Planet Ark comes clean!

Crikey! approached Planet Ark for comment on my piece (below) on the origins of its washing powder and got what looks to be a straight and detailed answer from Paul Klymenko, the organisation's Research Director, advising that it's made by a family-owned business in Melbourne. That's very encouraging, in keeping with what Planet Ark seems to be on about... and certainly not something to hide! I hope we soon see some reference to this on both the Planet Ark website and the packaging itself.

09 April 2007

Forbidden planet: Who makes Planet Ark washing powder?

In consumer marketing, green is the new black. It’s no secret that all manner of business and brands not previously known for their "earth-friendliness" are adding a splash of green here and there, and mostly to good effect.

Planet Ark, a green brand that first came to consumer attention more than a decade ago by promoting recycling initiatives, has come a long way from those humble beginnings. Planet Ark is now an impressive consumer brand with high levels of recognition, approval and trust. From a commercial perspective, this means the organisation is ideally placed to capitalise on the current surge of consumer interest in all things green, water-saving and climate-friendly. While early moves in this direction saw Planet Ark as merely an endorser of products like Safe brand toilet paper and Aware laundry powder, the Planet Ark brand has recently assumed centre stage as a consumer product brand in its own right.

My household recently ditched an established national brand in favour of Planet Ark washing powder, and we are pleased with its performance so far. The rather simple and stark orange and blue box is awash with all kinds of information about the product, its ingredients and its environmental and health credentials. Strangely, though, amidst all the detail about cellulose colloids and plant oil surfactants, there’s no indication of where the product is made, or by whom.

Oh, sure, there’s an address – Planet Ark Environmental Products Pty Ltd, based in the Blue Mountains town of Wentworth Falls – but the Planet Ark website lists only eight staff in the Wentworth Falls office. There’s no mention anywhere of the kind of manufacturing and packaging operations required to produce mass-market quantities of a consumer product, nor whether these operations are undertaken in Australia or elsewhere. Neither is there any reference in the Planet Ark organisational structure to supply chain management – the process of sourcing all these non-petrochemical ingredients – nor a logistics and distribution network large enough to supply national supermarket chains.

The extensive FAQs section of the Planet Ark laundry powder website also sheds no light on the issue of who makes it. The nearest it comes is a question that asks Are the products Australian Made & Owned?, to which the answer is Yes they are. Some of the raw materials are not made in Australia so they must be sourced from overseas.

It’s hard to understand why Planet Ark seems so coy about identifying its commercial partners in what looks to be a good product with commendable credentials, especially as it has proclaimed itself "pro-business" from the outset and been transparent about its other business relationships.

Let’s face it, consumers are sufficiently attuned to the business of brand extension to realise that Planet Ark must be contracting other organisations to manufacture, package and distribute its consumer products. Planet Ark "green" shopping bags, for example, are manufactured in China, and the organisation seems quite open about this. We don’t actually believe – or expect – that Planet Ark founders and front people like Jon Dee, Pat Cash and Rebecca Gilling are out in a back room somewhere with their sleeves rolled up, mixing up batches of detergent in plastic rubbish bins.

And surely no consumer would think the less of Planet Ark for contracting another organisation to make and distribute laundry detergent and other consumer products under its brand name, so long as the ingredients and processes are specified and controlled by Planet Ark and are in keeping with its values and not-for-profit status.

Do consumers really care who makes products, how and where? Traditionally, and for so-called "low involvement" categories, the answer was mainly "no". But recent trends in fast-moving consumer goods marketing have turned that around, especially among some significant customer segments. We are now encouraged – indeed, trained – to look for information and read the fine print: Is it made in Australia? Is it dolphin-friendly? Is it low GI and organic? Does it contain CFCs, artificial sweeteners, colours and flavours? Does it contain gluten or traces of nuts?

Ironically, it’s the very fact that Planet Ark provides so much product detail on its washing powder pack that makes the absence of manufacturing information stand out so starkly for me. But am I just overly suspicious and is the lack of disclosure merely an oversight? Or – behind the hundreds of words on biodegradability, zeolite minerals and being free of phosphates – is there something about the washing powder that Planet Ark would rather we didn’t know?