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CASE: III    Unilever in Brazil: marketing strategies for low-income customers


After three successful years in the Personal Care division of Unilever in Pakistan, Laercio Cardoso was contemplating attractive leadership positioning China when he received a phone call from Robert Davidson, head of Unilever’s Home Care division in Brazil, his home country. Robert was looking for someone to explore growth opportunities in the marketing of detergents to low-income consumers living in the north-east of Brazil and felt that Laercio had the seniority and skills necessary for the project. Though he had not been involved in the traditional Unilever approach to marketing detergents, his experience in Pakistan had made him acutely aware of the threat posed by local detergent brands targeted at low-income consumers.


At the start of the project—dubbed ‘Everyman’—Laercio assembled an interdisciplinary team and began by conducting extensive field studies to understand the lifestyle, aspirations and shopping habits of low-income consumers. Increasing detergent use by these consumers was crucial for Unilever given that the company already had 81 per cent of the detergent powder market. But some in the company felt that it should not fight in the lower cost structures struggled to break even. How could Laercio justify diverting money from a best-selling brand like Omo to invest in a lower-margin segment?


Consumer behavior


The 48 million people living in the north-east (NE) of Brazil lag behind their south-eastern (SE) counterparts on just about every development indicator. In the NE, 53 per cent of the population live on less than two minimum wages versus 21 per cent inn the SE. In  the NE, only 28 per cent of households own a washing machine versus 67 per cent in the SE. Women in the NE scrub clothes in a washbasin or sink using bars of laundry soap, a process that requires intense and sustained effort. They then add bleach to remove tough stains and only a little detergent powder in the end, primarily to make the clothes smell good. In the SE, the process is similar to European or North American standards. Women  mix powder detergent and softener in a washing machine and use laundry soap and bleach only to remove the toughest stains.

The penetration and usage of detergent powder and laundry soap is the same in the NE and the SE (97 per cent). However, north-easterners use a little less detergent (11.4 kg per years versus 12.9 kg) and a lot more soap (20 kg versus 7 kg) than south-easterners. Many women in the NE view washing clothes as one of the pleasurable routine activities of their week. This is because they often do their washing in a public laundry, river or pond where they meet and chat with their friends. In the SE, in contrast, most women wash clothes alone at home. They perceive washing laundry as a chore and are primarily interested in ways to improve the convenience of the process.


People in the NE and SE differ in the symbolic value they attach to cleanliness. Many poor north-easterners are proud of the fact that they keep themselves and their families clean despite their low income. Because it is so labour intensive, many women see the cleanliness of clothes as an indication of the dedication of the mother to her family, and personal and home cleanliness is a main subject of gossip. In the SE, where most women own a washing machine, it has much lower relevance for self-esteem and social status. Along with price, the primarily low-income consumers of the NE evaluate detergents on six key attributes (Figure 1 provides importance ratings, the range of consumer expectations, and the perceived positioning of key detergent brands on each attribute).




In 1996 Unilever was a clear leader in the detergent powder category in Brazil, with an 81 per cent market share, achieved with three brands: Omo (one of Brazil’s favourate brands across all categories) Minerva (the only brand to be sold as both detergent powder and laundry soap with a more hedonistic ‘care’ positioning) and Campeiro (Unilever’s cheapest brand). Proctor & Gamble, which had recently entered the Brazilian market, had 15 per cent of the market with three brands (Ace, Bold and the low-price brand Pop). Other competitors were smaller companies (see Figure 2).


The Brazilian fabric wash market consists of two categories: detergent powder and laundry soap. In 1996 detergent was a US$106 million (42,000 tons) market in the NE. In 1996 the NE market for laundry soap bars was as large as the detergent powder market (US$102 million for 81,250 tons). The NE market for laundry soap is much easier to produce than powdered laundry detergent. Laundry soap is a multi-use product that has many home and personal care uses. Table 5 provides key information on all powder and laundry soap brands (packaging, positioning, key historical facts, and financial and market data).


Table 5





Key Data


Cardboard pack:

1 kg & 500g.

Removes stains with low quantity of product when used in washing machines, thus reducing the need for soap or bleach.

S: 55.20

WP: 3.00

FC: 1.65

PKC: 0.35

PC: 0.35


Cardboard pack:

1 kg & 500g.


S: 17.60

WP: 2.40

FC: 1.40

PKC: 0.35

PC: 0.30


Cardboard pack:

1 kg & 500g.


S: 6.05

WP: 1.70

FC: 0.90

PKC: 0.35

PC: 0.20


Cardboard pack:

1 kg & 500g



Cardboard pack:

1 kg & 500g.



Cardboard pack:

1 kg & 500g.



Cardboard pack:

1 kg & 500g.



Plastic pack with 5 bars of 200g.



Plastic pack with 5 bars of 200g or single bar of 200g.


Figure 1 & 2  Market Share and wholesale Price of Major Brands in the Laundry Soap and Detergent Powder Categories in the Northeast in 1996





Robert Davidson, head of Unilever’s Home Care Division in Brazil, and Laercio Cardoso, head of the ‘Everyman’ research project aided at understanding the low-income consumer segment, must re-examine Unilever’s strategy for low-income consumers in the NE region of Brazil and make three important decisions.


  1. Go/no go. Should Unilever divert money from its premium brands to invest in a lower-margin segment of the market? Does Unilever have the right skills and structure to be profitable in a market in which even small local entrepreneurs struggle to break even? In the long run, what would Unilever gain and what would it risk losing?

  2. Marketing and branding strategy. Unilever already has three detergent brands with distinct positionings.  Does it need to develop a new brand with a new value proposition or can it reposition its existing brands or use a brand extension?

  3. Marketing mix. What price, product, promotion and distribution strategy would allow Unilever to deliver value to low-income consumers without cannibalizing its own premium brands too heavily? Is it just a matter of price?




Unilever could produce a product comparable to Campeiro, its cheapest product, but would it deliver the benefits that low-income consumers wanted? Alternatively, Unilever could use Minerva’s formula but it might be too expensive for low-income consumers. If they could eliminate some ingredients, Unilever’s scientists could develop a third formula that would cost about 10 per cent more than Campeiro’s formula. The difficulty would be in determining which attributes to eliminate, which to retain and which, if any would actually need to be improved relative to both existing brands.


Larger packages would reduce the cost per kilo but could price the product out of the weekly budget range of the poorest consumers. Unilever could use a plastic sachet, which would cost 30 per cent of the price of traditional cardboard boxes, but market research data had shown that low-income consumers were attached to boxes and regarded anything else as good for only second-rate products. One solution might be to launch multiple types and sizes.




Priced significantly above Campeiro and Minerva soap, the product would be out of reach for the target segment. Priced too low, it would increase the cost of the inevitable cannibalization of existing Unilever brands. Should Unilever use coupons or other means to reduce the cost of the product for low-income consumers? Or should it change the price of Omo, Minerva

and Campeiro?





In the low-income segment, lower margins meant that volume had to be reached very quickly for the product to break even. It was therefore crucial to find a radical ‘story’, one that would immediately put the new brand on the map. What would be the objective of the communication? What should be the key message? Low-income consumers might be reluctant to buy a product advertised ‘for the low-income people’ especially as products with that kind of message are typically of inferior quality. On the other hand, using the classic aspirational communication of most Brazilian brands could confuse consumers and lead to unwanted cannibalization.


In regular detergent markets Unilever had established that the most effective allocation of communication expenditure was 70 cent above-the-line (media advertising) and 30 per cent below-the-line (trade promotions, events, point- of-purchase marketing). The advantages of using primarily media advertising are its low cost per contact and high reach because almost all Brazilians, irrespective of income, are avid television watchers. One alternative would be to use 70 per cent below-the-line communication. At US$0.05 per kg, this plan would require only one-third of the cost of a traditional Unilever communication plan. On the other hand, it would lower the reach of communication, increase the cost of per contact, and make a simultaneous launch in all north-eastern cities more difficult to organize. 




Unilever did not have the ability to distribute to the approximately 75,000 small outlets spread over the NE, yet access to these stores was key because low-income consumers rarely shopped in large supermarkets like Wal-Mart or Carrefour. Unilever could rely on its existing network of generalist wholesalers who supplied its detergents and a wide variety of products to small stores. These wholesalers had national coverage and economies of scale but did not directly serve the small stores where low-income consumers shopped, necessitating another layer of smaller wholesalers, which increased their cost to US$0.10 per kg. Alternatively, Unilever could contract with dozens of specialize distributors who would get exclusive rights to sell the new Unilever detergent. These specialized distributors would have a better ability to implement point of purchase marketing and would cost less ($0.05 per kg).



  1. Describe the consumer behaviour differences among laundry products’ customers in Brazil. What market segments exists?

  2. Should Unilever bring out a new brand or use one of its existing brands to target the north-eastern Brazilian market?

  3. How should the brand be positioned in the marketplace and within the Unilever family of brands?

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