Duracell's Bunny Buster?

The battery maker says its new Ultra trounces rivals

In today's ever more mobile society, it sometimes seems as if everything--from your child's power-assisted lollipop to the latest palmtop--eats batteries. Yet we don't have much choice in disposable batteries: Despite constant battles between the Energizer Bunny and Duracell International's Copper Top, tests have shown there isn't much difference between battery brands--they all poop out at about the same rate.

But now Duracell says it has shattered the stalemate. On Feb. 18, it unveiled Duracell Ultra, a new line of AA and AAA alkaline batteries specifically designed for power-draining digital cameras, cell phones, and remote-controlled toys. Duracell claims the Ultra, in development for four years, will last up to 50% longer than ordinary alkaline batteries in such devices. Duracell squeezed more performance out of the alkaline design by reducing electrical resistance and reformulating the battery's chemistry, company officials say. Duracell will start shipping the Ultra in May and plans to ask a 20% premium over its existing batteries, or about $5 for a four-pack of AAs. Part of the marketing plan is to convince rechargeable battery users to switch to alkaline disposables for the convenience.

Other battery makers have tweaked batteries for high-tech products. Eastman Kodak, No.4 in batteries, says its new Photolife AAs outlast the competition in its digital cameras. And No.2 Energizer has been promoting its new AA and AAA batteries as superior for "high-drain devices" like cell phones and minidisc players. It maintains they are superior even to the Ultra. But the new Ultra is "a wake-up call for Energizer," says Jeffrey Hill, managing director of the Meridian Consulting Group in Westport, Conn.

GILLETTE'S EDGE. Experts expect Duracell to have a fairly easy time upgrading users to the Ultra. Gillette Co., which bought Duracell in 1996, has a long record of convincing consumers to pay more for the next thing in shaving. And with the Ultra, "a 20% premium seems a small price to pay for the convenience of a 50% improvement," says Suzanne Hogan, senior partner at Lippincott & Margulies Inc. Duracell believes Ultra can capture 10% of the $3 billion North American and European market for AA and AAA batteries, boosting its market share by 3%, to 51%.

Duracell is also betting the Ultra will make alkaline batteries more attractive to users of cell phones and camcorders. The company estimates that just 8% of cell phones now accept alkaline batteries. But Duracell will now be able to make a stronger case that "an alkaline battery is a better choice" for users like so-called safety subscribers, who have cell phones mainly for emergencies, says Brian M. Barnett, director of battery industry studies for Arthur D. Little Inc. The reason: While rechargeables lose their charge over time, alkaline holds its for years.

Already, Duracell has helped convince Philips Electronics and Alcatel Alsthom to launch cell phones with a built-in alkaline option, and Sony to offer its Handycam with that capability. And "we now have design projects under way with 50 other manufacturers," says Peter K. Hoffman, Duracell's President of commercial operations.

Given the fierce battery wars, competitors will doubtless come up with similar products. But for now, the Copper Top has the bunny on the run.

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