F-OMO on the streets of Soweto

Free laundry service: The Omo Washa Nathi centre is situated opposite the Dobsonville Shopping Centre in Soweto. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Free laundry service: The Omo Washa Nathi centre is situated opposite the Dobsonville Shopping Centre in Soweto. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

It's 7.30am on a Wednesday, and the sun has risen in a smoggy haze behind a dusty field piled with rubbish in Dobsonville, Soweto.

Men in blue overalls and women in black leather shoes cross the field to the shopping centre and taxi rank. Hawkers set up their stalls with chip packets and oversized lollipops to catch the pedestrian traffic. Children in school uniforms greet each other with the familiarity of the daily commute.

And then, rising out of the sky like an incongruous beacon of sorts, one sees the clean, angular lines of the two-storey Omo Washa Nathi centre.

On a busy morning, a line of about 90 people snakes outside the light-blue prefabricated room with its black hatch.

Mainly men – single men, hostel dwellers, divorcées – queue in the field, although there are working mothers and single women as well. But they are not queuing to catch a train or a ride from the nearby taxi rank. They are here to hand in their dirty laundry.

Until September this year, anyone who lives near one of seven taxi ranks in Gauteng and Limpopo can have their clothes washed, dried and ironed for free.

Waiting in the line
They wait 20 to 30 minutes in the line between 5am and 10am, hand in their laundry to an Omo representative and get a receipt. The following day, between 4pm and 6pm, they collect their bag of fresh laundry, along with a sachet of Omo with Comfort softener. Representatives explain the new product, tell consumers how to use it and send them on their way.

In isolation, it seems like an innovative tactic Unilever is using to defend its 50-year stronghold on one of its most popular washing powder brands. But to many it is one of the marks of an epic brand war that has begun to rage across the country – one in which, analysts say, consumers are poised to take the spoils.

It began a few months ago, when popular chat show personality Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu appeared in a television advert. She had "found a flyer" claiming that a new soap powder, Ariel, removes more stains in "just one wash" than South Africa's "leading" detergent.

Ariel billboards were erected around the country with a smiling woman holding up her index finger signalling the number one – an ambiguous reference to the number of washes it takes to remove more stains than its competitors.

Although the vice-president of brand-building homecare at Unilever, Justin Apsey, said that Sunlight has the greatest portion of market share, it is generally understood by analysts that the Ariel adverts are making a direct comparison with the well-loved Omo brand. Omo is understood to have about a 30% share of the market, although Apsey said that he was "unable to divulge market share" so he could not confirm it.

So what made United States-based Procter & Gamble take on the heritage of a detergent brand backed by another fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) giant that has consolidated itself over five decades?

An ongoing battle
"It's a battle between Unilever and Procter & Gamble that has been going on for so long," said Michael Wood, director of Aperio, an FMCG business consulting company.

"When you're as big as Procter & Gamble, you're constantly looking for new markets, and Africa is one of them. So I think it was always on the map for them – it was just a question of when they decided the time was right."

Procter & Gamble has spent the last few years establishing the brand in Africa. Recent newspaper reports in Kenya claim that four years after Ariel was introduced to the market, it overtook Omo as the most popular brand.

This success, according to Carla Enslin, senior lecturer at Vega Brand School, probably contributed to the company's decision.

"Economic conditions as well as shifting consumer profiles, consumption trends and buying power in South Africa may have indicated that the time is ripe for a competitive entry," she said.

But Procter & Gamble is taking on a giant. Omo has enjoyed decades of success due to a clear brand promise with an "omnipresent contact strategy", said Enslin.

"Omo is an icon in South Africa and enjoys high levels of habitual support. "Its strong distribution network and frequent communication touch-points have formed strong connections with people over a long period of time," said Enslin.

Loyalty
In Dobsonville, loyalty runs high. "My mother used to use Omo; even my mother-in-law," said Richard Dhlamini (65), who lives with his wife, three children and five grandchildren. "Other soaps can't keep the dirt out the way Omo does. I don't buy Ariel and I won't in future."

Victor Letlolwane (31), who gets his clothes washed at the Washa Nathi centre, agreed: "I won't lie to you; I won't use anything else."

"Maybe it's because of our grannies. It's history, and it's not easy to divert," Lolo Mnguni (33) told the Mail & Guardian. "But there is this new product, Ariel, that is cheaper and that removes stains more effectively that is coming on the market."

According to Khululiwe Mabaso, associate director of communication for sub-Saharan Africa at Procter & Gamble, the claim in the advert is based on in-depth customer research.

"We asked consumers what their needs were in terms of laundry detergents and developed our communication based on their unmet need: being able to remove stains better and in one wash," she said.

Breaking into the market
According to Woods, Procter & Gamble was using this strong, rationally founded claim to break into the market. "The functionality of washing powder appeals to people," he said.

"[Procter & Gamble] will come out with strong claims, but they are founded on fact. They will make sure they can back up their claims. The trick is to have a product that works better than your competition and prove it by getting people to try it."

Mabaso is confident they can achieve this. "Ariel is a $7-billion business and is present in 89 countries with brand leadership in 16 of these markets," she said. "The brand enjoys long-standing recognisability, trust, heritage and popularity in other markets such as the United Kingdom, United States, Europe and Africa (Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda)."

But, added Woods, the fight for market share is "a bit of a game. Ariel will come out with a claim, then Omo will come out with a claim. The winner at the end of the day is the consumer. It's fantastic news for us."

One person who was convinced to test Ariel was Nomusa Dlamini (25). "Ariel is nice," she said. "I don't have to use Sta-Soft if I use it. It's better and cheaper. I use Ariel every time and I can't change."

The new product is being sold at some outlets for 20% cheaper than its competitor.

"There will in all probability be a price war, which may benefit the consumer with better products at better prices," said Enslin. "The category [detergents] may also receive new interest and consequently higher purchase levels."

Both Unilever and Procter & Gamble said they recommended prices to retailers but that they did not make the final pricing call.

According to Apsey, it was not the start of a branding battle. "We do not see this as a brand war but rather [as] an opportunity for our brands to get stronger and give better value," he said. "Consumers can get great innovations through our brands and increase [their] involvement in the category."

And many of the people at Dobsonville taxi rank agree.

Thalia Holmes

Thalia Holmes

Thalia is a freelance business reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Swaziland and lived in the US before returning to South Africa.She got a cum laude degree in marketing and followed it with another in English literature and psychology before further confusing things by becoming a black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) consultant.After spending five years hearing the surprised exclamation, "But you're white!", she decided to pursue her latent passion for journalism, and joined the M&G in 2012. The next year, she won the Brandhouse Journalist of the Year Award, the Brandhouse Best Online Award and was chosen as one of five finalists from Africa for the German Media Development Award. In 2014, she and a colleague won the Standard Bank Sivukile Multimedia Award. She now writes and edits for various publications, but her heart still belongs to the M&G.      Read more from Thalia Holmes

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