Persil laundry detergent had been a staple on the shopping list of many a household in the UK since it was first introduced by The Lever Brothers (now Unilever) in the early 1900s. In the early 90s however, Persil was feeling the pressure from its main competitor, Ariel.

Ariel Ultra launched claiming it cleaned even better with less detergent needed. Powered by chemical catalysts, Ariel was gaining ground on Persil’s market share. Unilever needed to fight back.

The R&D team came up with a manganese-based catalyst that sped up the bleaching process during washing. After tests showed good results, the product was given the go-ahead and Persil Power was born. Wary of changing the formula of their main product (learning from another competitor, Daz, who altered their product and caused allergic reactions in some customers) they developed it as an addition to the regular Persil powder and called it ‘the accelerator’.

It was marketed as a breakthrough in stain removal through television, billboards and samples being sent to millions of homes across the UK, in a launch worthy of an FMCG blockbuster product. This would surely put Ariel’s owners Procter & Gamble (P&G) in a spin. But it wasn’t long before complaints started to come in. The Persil powder was so powerful that colours were fading, and worse, weakening clothes so that they ripped and tore easily.

Even in the recommended quantities, it was too powerful; it was like adding bleach to your wash. Most of Persil’s tests had been on new clothes, which didn’t show many effects – but in older clothes the damage happened in just a couple of washes.

Sensing an opportunity to strike, P&G (Ariel) sent pictures of clothes that had been ruined to national newspapers both in the UK and across Europe. It was a PR disaster. Consumers and retailers raised lawsuits against them (many of which were settled out of court) and in the end there was no choice but to recall the product.

£57m of unsold stock was written off, and product development and marketing costs must make this a £200m+ New Product Disaster, on top of the loss in their reputation.

What does good look like?

It isn’t the first time a business has rushed through the development of a new product in the face of competitors actions. Samsung allegedly rushed the release of the Galaxy Note 7 to capitalise on what they perceived as consumers feeling underwhelmed by the latest Apple phone – and fitted the wrong size battery, with some catching fire and sparking their own recall.

With Persil it was a response to a competitor gaining market share. With a desire to get something out quickly, they botched their testing and ended up releasing a product that did more damage than good. Whether their processes weren’t up to scratch beforehand, or they felt the pressure from Ariel so skipped some steps, the testing phase didn’t give them an accurate idea of the viability of the product. Making sure every stage of testing is completed satisfactorily and trying not to let the pressure from competitors influence decision making are my main takeaways from the Persil Power story.

Moving forward

What’s the moral of this Bad Marketing story for you? What should Persil have done differently? What will you do differently in your own work?

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