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Rival Plays Dirty Trick on Detergent Giant

Siberian factory rides on back of Procter & Gamble's comparison ads with its Ordinary laundry soap.

July 09, 1999|MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — You've seen the TV ad a hundred times: Identical garments are washed in Brand Name laundry soap and Ordinary laundry soap. And of course, the clothes washed in Brand Name detergent come out looking better.

The side-by-side laundry test is one of the oldest conventions in Western consumer advertising, dating to the earliest days of television. Now, a Siberian soap factory has found a way to sabotage the formula.

The Angarsk Chemical Factory in Angarsk, Russia, has begun producing and selling a successful line of laundry soap called Ordinary detergent. The name and the box the soap comes in are a copy of the no-name detergent used in a multimillion-dollar TV advertising campaign by Procter & Gamble.

"It's a good idea," admits Andrei Bader, spokesman for Procter & Gamble in Russia. "In effect, we are paying for their advertising."

Angarsk's Ordinary detergent is a good example of the way Russian practices can undermine Western conventional wisdom.

The Angarsk factory is in south-central Siberia, about 2,500 miles from Moscow. About a year ago, the company was searching for a simple but novel name for a cut-rate brand of detergent when it hit on Ordinary.

"It's a good name for ordinary people who sometimes wash their ordinary clothes in their ordinary homes," explains Angarsk commercial director Igor A. Kuzin.

Kuzin acknowledges the obvious: One benefit of the name is that Procter & Gamble has already publicized it in its ads for the high-end Ariel laundry soap.

Procter & Gamble is the largest advertiser in Russia. So without spending a penny, Angarsk acquired a well-known--if maligned--brand name.

"We can't afford that kind of advertising," Kuzin says. "So if the name of our brand is used in somebody else's ads, we don't mind. No matter what context it is used in, it will stick in people's minds."

In effect, what Angarsk is doing is producing a generic product similar to those found on the bottom shelves of many American supermarkets.

And its strategy is legally impeccable. Procter & Gamble doesn't own the name, and such common words cannot be trademarks.

Betty Gabbard, a spokeswoman for Procter & Gamble at company headquarters in Cincinnati, says that "to the best of our knowledge," Angarsk appears to be the first competitor anywhere in the world to hijack a Procter & Gamble ad campaign this way.

Angarsk officials say that Ordinary detergent is selling well but that the main attraction is the price, not the ads. It sells for about 30 cents a pound in Moscow; Procter & Gamble's Ariel and Tide brands sell for more than $1.50 a pound.

Andrei Fedotov, director of the Russian Public Relations Co. marketing group, estimates that Procter & Gamble has bought a whopping 7,000 minutes of national air time to promote Ariel.

But he too considers the ad campaign less important to promoting sales than Ordinary's low price. He estimates that it has captured about 20% of the market around Angarsk, but no more than 1% or 2% nationally.

"The main reason it sells is that it's cheap," he says. "The second reason is that it's funny. When something makes you laugh, you'll buy it."

Procter & Gamble officials say they too are amused by Angarsk's marketing tactics. Spokesman Bader insists that among P&G's three main brands--low-priced Mif, mid-range Tide and high-end Ariel--Ordinary detergent has had a negligible impact.

"At this point in time, we see no harm to our product," Bader says. "We have no plans to change our advertising."

He also predicts that Ordinary's bubble may soon burst.

Last year's ruble devaluation caused many Russian consumers to abandon fancy brand-name products. Now that the ruble has stabilized and the economy is showing the first signs of recovery, he thinks many Ordinary buyers may drift up-market to Tide or even Ariel.

But if they don't, at some point the company may start thinking about making changes in its TV ads. Instead of comparing Ariel to Ordinary detergent, maybe they'll switch to, say, "Common detergent."

"To work in Russia, you have to have a sense of humor," Bader says.

Svetlana Y. Safonova of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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