Nonfoods Talk: Sweet smell of success?

Unilever has introduced a product that company officials hope will bring new sales to the deodorant category. Can it drum up interest in a mundane segment?

By Seth Mendelson

What do you do when there is nothing left to be done?

In the case of Unilever and the deodorant category, it is to create a perception among consumers that a new product will perform in a totally different way than existing items and give shoppers a solution to an ongoing problem. An article in The Wall Street Journal describes how the multi-national conglomerate is trying to generate some buzz and, hence, some sales from the deodorant category by introducing Dove Ultimate Go Sleeveless, a product that will keep underarms free of odor while making them prettier.

In the Journal article, Unilever officials say that the product will help give women better-looking underarms in just five days. It also said that company research found that 93% of women consider their armpits to be unattractive.

I say, what the heck. Maybe Unilever is on to something. Let us give this new product a shot. In fact, I did a random sample of women in my office and, sure enough, most said that they do not like the appearance of their underarms and would welcome a product that made them look better. This was particularly true with the under-30 set, where universally they said they would welcome such a product.

I had no idea that underarms mattered so much to women.

The good news for Unilever and retailers is the fact that there may be no better category to do this in than the $2.7 billion deodorant market. Deodorant sales have been stuck in a slump for years, victim to the basic fact that just about everyone who is going to use the product is already doing so. Improvements in deodorant items are far and few between and, with the exception of packaging enhancements made about a decade or so ago, there has been nothing earth-shattering to come out of the category.

So will this product do the trick? From this angle, I am not sure whether consumers will bite at this or consider it just another gimmick to raise price-points and profits for the manufacturer. I do believe that Unilever deserves an “A” for effort for trying to open up the floodgates on what has been a pretty bleak picture for deodorants over the years.

Now it will be up to the company to correctly position and market the product so consumers know it is available and understand how it works. Retailers, of course, will have to quickly decide whether Ultimate Go Sleeveless deserves a spot on their shelves, especially given the fact that deodorants already get a lot of room and demands a lot of attention from merchants because of the large number of SKUs in the category.

There is a precedent for this. Years ago, many industry observers said that the oral care category had reached its saturation point with more than 97% of consumers purchasing toothpaste products. Today, the constant innovations hitting the category have helped invigorate it and create excitement in the marketplace.

As reported here, Johnson & Johnson’s McNeil Consumer Health­care division has had more than its fair share of problems in recent times, including issues with quality and packaging. In late March, the company announced some changes to the McNeil unit, including separating it from other consumer health care bus­inesses and putting Patrick Mut­chler, a 35-year J&J veteran, in charge of the operation.

I don’t know Mutchler, but sources inside the company say that he may be the right guy for the job. My suggestion is that he quickly get a stranglehold on this unit and put into place the procedures that will ensure product quality and assure the community—both re­tailers and consumers—that J&J products are again 100% safe.

One other thing. As I have often said, J&J is a leader in the HBC marketplace and should always be held to the highest standard. So the pressure is on Mutchler and his team to fix this mess fast.

Seth Mendelson can be reached at 646-274-3507, or smendelson@groceryheadquarters.com.

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