Communicating with Your Public

For 70 years Unilever never pioneered an innovative product. They'd watch and wait until someone else had done the spearheading work. When they thought the time was right (and the potential profits promising) they would either offer to buy them out or start a rival, using heavy advertising to buy their market share. For example, for nearly seven years they watched Vesty, the giant chilled meat importer with the largest cold stores in the country and its own fleet of modern refrigerated ships. Vesty had as a sideline decided to enter the domestic frozen food market under its own brand, Fropax.

Fropax had an excellent range. It used quality ingredients and, after an indifferent start, introduced the most pick-upable packages with wraparound photography. Initially, sales were small. There were just not enough domestic refrigerators in British homes. Vesty rented their spare cold storage to the timorous Unilever. When fish fingers became the latest rage, Vesty made sounds to evict their cold store tenants.

Unilever, meanwhile, had acquired the Birds Eye franchise. They now commissioned a huge cod-slicing factory in Lowestoft and built an even larger cold store than their rivals and a modern office complex complete with fountains and an alligator at Walton-on-Thames, just outside London. These snappy moves alerted grocers to the strength of Unilever's intentions.

This strategy was typical of the way Unilever moved at the time, and by and large it worked. Everyone knows Birds Eye. You never hear of Fropax now. In the mid '60s someone asked why. There were a lot of astute observations and lots of talk about instinct, but no one could tell the board why.

So they decided to tackle the question another way and investigate why new product ventures fail. They knew that about a third of all launches plunged within three years, and not always because the product was inadequate or unreasonably priced or even badly managed. By the time Unilever had examined several hundred failed products in considerable detail, a definite, common sense yet quite unexpected explanation began to emerge. All the failures had one thing in common: They all underestimated the cost of educating the market. With the money they allocated, the market developed more slowly than they needed. Unilever simply stepped in, picked up the pieces, and took it from there, which is why marketing is about the efficient creation of customers.

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