The stalwart has been one of the biggest losers since Boots No7 Protect & Perfect Beauty Serum devastated the branded facial skincare market following favourable research reported on BBC Two's Horizon. After the programme was broadcast last year, demand was such that Boots' product was selling on eBay for up to £100.
The whole category has taken a hit, but, because Protect & Perfect targets a similar demographic to Olay's, the latter was hit hard. In the year to April 2008, its sales declined 10%, according to TNS Biggest Brands.
Launched in 1949 as Oil of Olay in South Africa, the brand arrived in the UK as Oil of Ulay in 1958. After passing through the hands of various owners, it was bought by Procter & Gamble in the mid-80s; in 1999 it dropped the 'Oil of' and switched to the global Olay name.
The brand has extended into hypo-allergenic variants, cleansers, creams and even cosmetics. Its launch of anti-ageing sub-brands such as Regenerist and Total Effects have distanced it from its old-fashioned image to an extent, but its original lotion remains within its Classic Care range. To add to its problems, this sub-sector is in decline.
So what can Olay do to turn around its fortunes? We asked Olivia Johnson, planning director at Hooper Galton, who worked on Dove's 'Real women' campaign while at Ogilvy, and Kate Waddell, Dragon's managing director - consumer brands.
Olivia Johnson planning director, Hooper Galton
Olay is a strange brand. It has innovated ruthlessly over the past 20 years and boasts a range that spans basic skincare to high-end, age-defying products. Total Effects, Regenerist and Definity look sophisticated, expert and expensive. These sub-brands have allowed Olay to move from its 'pink fluid' roots and charge a premium, relative to other supermarket brands.
Yet many women still think the brand old-fashioned. 'It's for my grandmother' is a common response. The strength of these associations is surprising, given how much money has been spent on NPD and advertising to eradicate them.
It is also a while since Olay launched a breakthrough product. The face-care market is driven by hope, which manufacturers need to feed with a steady stream of innovations. Although not technically a new product, Horizon's endorsement of Boots' Protect & Perfect last summer had women agog. The amount of 'un-bid-for' lots of Protect & Perfect on eBay suggests the fad has peaked, but the Boots brand is undoubtedly now on shopping lists.
- Launch a new, exciting product that causes a real stir.
- Think about changing its advertising approach, which does not seem to do enough to alter perceptions that the brand is out of date.
- Avoid resorting to pseudo-scientific gobbledegook. Women are sceptical of the claims made by skincare brands. Third-party endorsements or peer-to-peer recommendations are invaluable in overcoming scepticism.
- Olay is a rather cold and distant brand. Without destroying its core values, it should try to bring itself to life in popular culture.
Kate Waddell managing director - consumer brands, Dragon
Most anti-ageing skincare brands have felt the heat from Protect & Perfect's spectacular arrival, with its heady mix of quantified performance, straight-talking branding and an overnight, word-of-mouth sensation.
Olay was, perhaps, the most obvious victim - with a shared target audience of 'mid-life' women looking for more than hope in a jar. What is surprising is that Olay always scored highly for loyalty, trust and efficacy, so there must be something more fundamental going on.
My hunch would be that Olay is falling between two stools. It has an enviable promise of 'Love the skin you're in', while its advertising, product range-naming and general messaging seem to convey a L'Oréal-style 'cosmetic beauty at any cost', hardcore wrinkle-fighting challenge. The two seem to be in conflict.
Dove, at one end of the scale, challenged face care with its on-brand Pro-Age, while Boots, with its scientific know-how, pharmacy-meets-beauty heritage hit the branding nail on the head with Protect & Perfect. Both also reinforce their positioning in their pack-aging, which Olay does not achieve. Standout is good, but maybe its visual impact is counter-trend and message?
- Revisit the brand promise and sense - check whether the ranging and marketing is working optimally.
- Olay should act like the leader brand it is - if it is about Ultimate Women of the Year, make it real women or celebrities, not both.
- Look at packaging. Standout is good; over-packaged and out-of-kilter is not.
- Never undervalue word-of-mouth. Build a community, create a buzz. If all else fails, create a killer claim, to get them talking.