Colgate Palmolive Is Really Cleaning Up In Poland

Wojtek Krol is used to ornery characters. As Colgate-Palmolive Co.'s top salesman in Poland, Krol, 30, wrangles daily with hostile ex-communists and grouchy sales clerks, all to sell Colgate toothpaste and Ajax cleanser in a land adapting pell-mell to capitalism. At a dingy, state-owned grocery store, or sklep, in Warsaw, a saleswoman glowers and turns her back brusquely on Krol when he walks in. "I have a problem with this lady," he tells a companion. Then, he grins and asks her how the toothpaste is selling. Krol has been working since May on getting better shelf space, but he rubbed this clerk the wrong way on an earlier visit. Now, he is pouring on the charm to get her to move a large spider plant that's blocking the Ajax, languishing on the bottom shelf.

This sklep will take several more weeks' work, Krol figures. But across town, in the Warsaw suburb of Wola, his efforts have already paid off. In a bustling private department store called Centrum, several smartly dressed saleswomen greet him warmly. The Polish-born Krol, a consummate schmoozer who once sold furniture in the U.S., asks after their families. Among the well-stocked shelves in the personal-care section, Ajax, Colgate toothpaste, and Palmolive soap and shampoo clearly have the best placement.

Krol is part of a marketing revolution that's sweeping through Eastern Europe. Just three years after communism's collapse, sales of consumer products marketed by such giants as Procter & Gamble and Unilever already far exceed expectations, despite obstacles ranging from high unemployment to steep declines in real income. And Colgate, which already reaps 64% of its sales from outside the U.S. and Canada, isn't about to miss out.

The New York-based company opened a Warsaw office in 1991, started up a factory within a year, and recorded a 60% increase in sales for its toothpastes and cleansers in 1992. Colgate did not turn a profit in Poland last year, because of its factory investment. Overall, however, "East Europe made money in 1992," says Barrie M. Spelling, vice-president for Central Europe. And while Colgate executives don't like to give away sales figures, it's clear they think sales of $20 million in 1993 are possible in Poland.

But Polish consumers are no pushovers. Western-style marketing can prompt memories of communist propaganda, crippling a brand's image overnight. That thought is never far from the minds of Colgate's Warsaw manager, Richard Mener, and his Dutch-born marketing director, Jo Jo Mulder. While Krol is making his rounds, the two Colgate veterans thrash out the details of their next big ad campaign.

BASIC TRAINING. Gathered around a conference table, Westerners and Poles seek to make their worlds mesh. Locals include executives from the Warsaw office of ad agency Young & Rubicam Inc. and Colgate's own Polish staff. Aside from Mener and Mulder, everyone is under 30 and learning on the job.

Young & Rubicam copywriter Marta Foch is working on a Polish version of a commercial Colgate developed in the U.S. as a sort of template for a global campaign. The ad shows a Colgate toothbrush in a dentist's chair, while an off-camera spokesman ticks off its qualities. Foch has talked a well-known Polish stage actor into reading the script as if it were a romantic poem--not your typical Madison Avenue approach. She figures that to work in Poland, the ad needs even more whimsy than a giant toothbrush can provide. "Polish people are irrational, sensitive, and emotional. You have to appeal to these qualities," says Mariola Czechowska, managing director of Y&R in Warsaw.

But Mener thinks the copywriters have overdone it and vetoes the plan. "It doesn't generate credibility," explains Mener, a Pole who emigrated to Belgium at 14 and who has worked for Colgate in Belgium and France. "It's not the kind of tone used by the market leader." Back to the drawing board.

For Mener, 38, and Mulder, 35, the job for the afternoon is more than creating a commercial--it's giving a lecture in Advertising 101. "We train all day long and do business in the evening," sighs Mulder. In the last year, Mener and Mulder have taught their staffers everything from how to interview job candidates to the basics of customer service. Secretaries had to be trained in telephone manners, since rudeness was the hallmark of service under communism.

ROMANTIC TOUCH. Already, however, there are signs this investment is working. Last year, Mener and his Polish copywriters adapted a global Colgate TV commercial for Ajax all-in-one cleanser. It zooms in on a mirthful blonde, as a tune from Bizet's Carmen swells. Dancing from room to room, the woman swoops and swipes at dirt, singing passionately about Ajax. Mener's team doctored the lyrics, substituting "touching softly" for "cleaning," for example, to inject a dose of Polish romanticism. The ad was an instant winner. Within two weeks of its launch last December, Poles bought every bottle of Ajax liquid cleanser in the country. Eight trucks shipped in extra Ajax over Christmas to ease the crunch.

Colgate managers remain acutely aware that they can still learn surprising lessons from East Europeans. Colgate was still setting up shop in Warsaw in September, 1991, when it saw rival Procter & Gamble Co. stumble. To promote its Wash & Go shampoo, P&G blanketed Polish television with commercials and distributed samples to households. Poles found the dubbed commercial culturally out of touch: It showed a woman popping out of a swimming pool and into a shower. "We don't have swimming pools, and most of us don't have showers. We have baths," sniffs Eugeniusz Smilowski, president of Pentor, a Warsaw market-research institute.

Worse, many Poles raided neighbors' mailboxes to filch Wash & Go samples to sell. Then, they got suspicious. "The reasoning was: 'They're trying to sell us the garbage they can't sell in the West,'" explained Smilowski. Sales plunged, and Wash & Go became the butt of a pun: "Wash your hair, and it goes away." Warsaw bars now serve a vodka drink called Wash & Go.

William F. Dobson, P&G's director of international coordination, says the Wash & Go episode was "blown out of proportion" and that sales were hurt only briefly. But there's no doubt the campaign changed the way Western marketers did business, from Warsaw to Bucharest. Colgate immediately took a low-key approach, making sure its first commercials aired only 12 times a week. "To a U.S. company, it is anathema, but you can overadvertise in Poland," says Spelling. "For Poles, there's still a close link between mass media and Communist Party propaganda."

While it's easy to get Poles to try a new product once, drumming up repeat business is much tougher. The average monthly income in Poland is only $200, and Mener and Spelling figure that just 25% of the population of 40 million can afford to buy Western goods regularly. And Poles don't always respond to brand images the way Americans do. "Poles don't go for a brand-name toothbrush. They want the red one," says Y&R's Czechowska.

After a 10-hour day, Mulder and Czechowska are still talking shop at dinner in one of the old town's elegant new restaurants. "We're No.1, with a 42% market share among Western brands of toothpaste," says Mulder. But suddenly, they drop their voices: Staffers from a rival ad agency have just been seated at a table nearby. One similarity between the marketing game in the U.S. and in Poland: The competition is everywhere.

       -- Don't overadvertise
      To Poles, ad blitzes smack of propaganda
       -- Coddle shop owners
      They need to learn retailing basics
       -- Play up your origins
      A little English on labels imparts a Western cachet
       -- Test, test, test
      Poles don't react to ads the way Americans do. Yuppie images, for example, may 
        -- Watch those samples
      Poles figure if it's free, something's amiss
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