• Omo and Ariel A good, clean fight

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The launch of Ariel has sent Unilever into a froth

Household goods giants Unilever and Procter & Gamble have gone to war in SA over laundry detergents.

Unilever has enjoyed market dominance for years through brands like Omo, Surf and Skip. But now P&G has entered the market aggressively with Ariel and the marketing gloves are off.

Since Ariel's launch in May, Unilever has been forced to shuffle its marketing strategy to protect its market share.

The Ariel brand was launched in 1967. Since then it has earned solid market share in the UK, the US, Europe and East and West Africa. "In the short time it has been in SA, it has quickly achieved awareness in consumers' minds," says Craig Page-Lee, MD of outdoor media agency Posterscope.

Its marketing has been particularly effective in the out-of-home sector, which includes billboards, experiential and brand activations. It is also running a TV campaign. To counter all this, Unilever has had to switch marketing spend from other parts of its marketing budget.

Page-Lee says Ariel has won market share through its distinctive brand identity and resonance with a broader spread of buyers. "The power of its green branding is very visible and has made a big impact," he says. "It has positioned itself to a cross-section of society, not just the lower-income market (Surf and Omo) or the higher segments (Skip)."

P&G is investing R1,6bn to produce Ariel in SA. It is expected to become the export hub to neighbouring countries. Ariel spokesman Khululiwe Mabaso says that in its first three months in SA the product "has received very positive feedback".

Justin Aspey, Unilever's vice-president for brand building in the homecare division, is coy about the group's marketing response. He says Unilever will increase its advertising spending, but not on what. It is SA's biggest advertiser, having spent R1,8bn in 2012.

He says Unilever is not worried by any potential threat from Ariel. "This is par for the course and the nature of free-market space," he says. "Rather, we see this as an opportunity for our brands to get stronger."