How did Ambi-Pur start and grow?

Saturday, 30 April, 2011

How a small Company, with a reduced number of employees, could create the global brand Ambi-Pur? It was not by chance, and it was not easy. It actually was the fruit of tough work, team spirit, a strategy based on innovation, and often desperation to survive in a competitive market with stronger players.

This article is an overview of the historical evolution of Ambi-Pur, a brand created in the 50’s by the small Spanish Company Cruz Verde. We will discuss some examples of products that drove the success of Ambi-Pur, which from a local Spanish brand turned into an international leader of the global air care market. For the last 60 years, when Ambi-Pur was successful, there was a strategy based on innovation that we will analyze.

The beginning

Ambipur was born in the context of the difficult days of post-civil war in Spain, a time of shortages, lack of hygiene and diseases. The main business of Cruz Verde was insecticides and they had a brand for every specific problem: Fulminante against houseflies, Cucal for roaches, Polil for Cloth Moths, Verhormil for ants, and so on…

To compensate the natural seasonality of the insecticides market, Cruz Verde developed new business areas:  Dermiluz (lipstick), Trisodin (hard surface cleaner), Iberia (textile-dyeing), and some others, Ambipur (airfreshener) among them.

The first Ambipur products were launched at the end of the 1950’s. They were copies of some products already in the market by that time. Ambipur, such as many other brands, was under the umbrella of the brand Cruz Verde. Some of the first Ambipur products were the following:

- Ambipur Pino. It was a liquid product (solvent + perfume), trying to compete against the very well-known Ozonopino, with neutralising and mild antiseptic properties of pine oils.

- Ambipur Clínico. It was a product similar to the previous one, but adding the bactericidal properties of quaternary amonium products, like Lysol or Dettol brands, made in other countries.

- Aerosols. In the 60’s, the Company built an aerosol factory, mainly for Insecticides and new Ambipur aerosol products appeared in the market.

The juvenile hormones

This title is not a play on words. Cruz Verde was acquired in the 70’s by a new company based in the US, a subsidiary of the Multinational Syntex. The main reason for the acquisition was the agrochemical business of Cruz Verde and the possibility to create a platform to sell a brand new development of juvenile hormones, a breakthrough in pest control. After some years, juvenile hormones were seen as a long term high potential opportunity, and the short term efforts focused in the existing business, including Ambi-Pur.

During these years SCJ entered the Spanish market, with a strong introduction plan of Household products: Insecticides (Raid), multi-purpose furniture cleaners (Pledge, etc.), toilet WC cleaners (Duck) and air fresheners – aerosols and gels – (Brise).

Sara Lee

Sara Lee bought Cruz Verde in the 80’s, Ambi-Pur was integrated in the Household and Body Care division and the ‘agrochemicals’ business was consequently divested. With endeavor, the leadership of Household Insecticides in front of Raid was kept and Ambi-Pur brand was reinforced to fight against Brise. In order to diversify risks, another business area was identified and promoted: Sanex. 

Ambi-Pur Permanente

During the 80’s, the growth driver of Ambi-Pur was this high-performance constant product to fight against bad odours in a market dominated by aerosols (instant effect) and gels (lack of performance). The product was a cellulosic diffuser based in a clever fragrance tailoring technology, developed at the Ambi-Pur laboratories. This product quickly gained the leadership of the Spanish air care market.

Another clever approach to consumer needs was intensity regulation. Because of the high sensory intensity achieved by fragrance tailoring, a manual regulation system was developed by exposing more or less evaporation surface. Although the technology was rather obvious, there were no alternative products with intensity regulation in the market at the time.

Ambi-Pur Electricals, 1993

The electrical air fresheners were a genuine innovation from Ambi Pur R&D in Barcelona. Because of their huge success they became a new category of products that is today sold worldwide, with sales volumes (in million €) of around 1.400 globally, 660 in Western Europe and 124 in Spain.

The product is an electrical device with intensity regulation that diffuses a liquid perfume prividing superior sensory quality. The heating system of the product allows diffusing many perfumery ingredients that cannot be evaporated with passive systems at room temperature, like gels. Because of its superior quality and price, the product was not positioned as a regular air freshener, but as a ‘home fragrance diffuser’.

The development of the electrical air fresheners involved many difficulties. One of them was that, at the time, there were no suppliers of electrical air care diffusers. Thus, one of the first steps was to create, from the R&D department of Cruz Verde, the suppliers to produce this product, and the technical specifications to produce it.

As the precursor of Ambipur Electrical, the Insecticide Long-Lasting Electrical Diffuser was launched some years before with high success in Spain. It was developed in the same laboratories as the electrical air fresheners.

The electrical air fresheners were launched in Spain in the context of the economical crisis of the beginning of the 90’s. It was a brave launch: RSP price was above 6 € for a starter kit, while the most expensive Air fresheners in the market at that time were sold for 2 €. The product costs were five times more expensive than the average competitor products.

Because it was so daring, the Marketing plan to launch Ambi-Pur Electrical in Spain was only accepted for a dual product: electrical Insecticide and Air freshener (the picture of this article). And it was based in the assumption that consumers already accepted to pay this RSP for Insecticides, while it was uncertain for Air fresheners. However, it was soon clear that consumers did not like the idea of mixing insecticide and air freshener concepts. After a huge proven success, the roll-out of this excellent product took 6 years for Western European countries, and despite many efforts, so far never went to the US market.

Ambi-Pur Flush liquid rimblocks, 1997

This product was developed in R&D Den Haag and launched in The Netherlands under a local brand: Tolett (Lavatory Care). This interesting innovation was about replacing the classical solid rimblocks for a liquid refill that constantly refreshes a fragrance diffuser. The system provides superior fragrance performance and the product position is not only about cleaning the toilet, but to fragrance the whole bathroom.  There were two main concerns to launch this product: 

- Its higher cost compared to existing solid rimblocks (the RSP was twice the solid rimblocks); and

- Whether consumers would accept to replace the liquid refills (which require manipulating a product placed in the toilet bowl).

Despite all these concerns and after many technical difficulties, the launch in The Netherlands was a big success. When it was decided to roll-out internationally the product, there were doubts related to the brand under which it should be sold: the local Dutch Tolett or the already international Ambi-Pur. Since the main benefit of the product was scent, and mainly because of the difficulty to introduce a new brand, Tolett Flush was moved to Ambi-Pur Flush. Although really painful for Procurement, Operations and R&D, the global roll-out of the product was successfully achieved. In a relatively short time, production capacity increased from 7 to 150 Mio units. And at the same time a lot of technological problems had been solved.

Ambi-Pur Car, 2000

During development and launch, there was no general agreement about the business potential of this product. The business of ‘Magic Tree’ was growing fast and there were strong temptations to turn the idea of a liquid air freshener for car into a ‘mee-too’ of this competitor. Finally, the project was launched in several countries approximately at the same time, and it was a huge success, despite the low sales forecast, based in consumer research prior to launch.

The principle of Ambi-Pur car is apparently simple: it takes advantage of the car ventilation system as an energy source to evaporate fragrances. The combination of this energy with a liquid fragrance developed with the fragrance tailoring method of Ambi-Pur R&D resulted in a huge success. The perceived intensity was higher and more constant than competitors. Since better raw materials could be used to build the fragrance, the sensory quality perceived by consumers was clearly superior.

The golden decade

Due to the huge success of Ambi-Pur and Sanex in the Spanish market the Household and BodyCare division of Sara Lee declared both ‘Core Brands’ and planned to roll-out them in the international market were Sara Lee was present. However, due to internal difficulties, the roll-out process was very slow and even did not occur in some countries. The 1990’s, or more precisely from 1992 to 2002, was the golden decade of Ambi-Pur basically because competitors were slower to innovate. The NSV growth of Ambi-Pur went from 12 to more than 360 Mio €. The main reasons for this enormous success were:

- International roll-out of Ambi-Pur.

- The development of highly innovative products driven by R&D: electrical diffusers, ‘Flush’ liquid rimblock and Ambipur car.

The guru

For more than 30 years and until 2001, the Ambi Pur R&D Team was lead by Paco Güell, considered by many people as a Guru. Today Paco is enjoying his retirement at home with his family. What only few people know about Paco is that he is a great painter, specialized in watercolor. During all these years he combined his long working hours in Cruz Verde with his painting activities. Today he has a lot of amazingly beautiful pictures about all kinds of places he has visited: mountains, lakes, beaches, villages, cities, seascapes, etc. He is currently spending part of his time painting, his lifelong passion.

With a firm personality, generous, elegant and mainly benevolent, Paco used to be one of the most charismatic person of Cruz Verde. A lover of conversation, Paco spent a huge amount of time dialoging in depth about Ambi-Pur with his people. And he is still interested in the matter, since Ambi-Pur is one of his passions. Paco has contributed to this article with ideas and historical data. 

Team spirit

The strategy of Ambi-Pur was about being different from competitors, bringing a clear added value and covering a consumer need that the other market products did not cover. Following this strategy requires having a mind open to new ideas, being prepared to assume risks, and have the capacity to “make ideas happen”.

Such new ideas were created and nurtured in a context of Team spirit focused on innovation. Under Paco’s leadership the R&D management philosophy was about listening, empowering and valuing the ideas that could drive to innovative products. All ideas where deeply discussed by the Team in order to maximize the added value. The most successful new products were the ones that brought convenience to consumers generating new concepts based on existing technologies. These concepts were created by the Ambi-Pur R&D team rather than by consumers, which often are not aware of their own needs and they do not know the technological possibilities of Air Care. The business management also played a key role by assuming the risk inherent to the launch of breakthrough products. Because predicting the success of such a launch is by definition uncertain.

Market Flops

In 2002 the Ambi-Pur business started to decline and sales decreased for the following 4 years. Some of the reasons for this decline were:

- Competitors copied the key Ambi-Pur products: electricals, flush and car, which reduced sales and profitability.

- The failed attempt to establish Ambi-Pur in the US and Japan.

- No launch during those days was successful. There were flops such as Instant Perfume (2002), Fragrance Burner (2003), Inspira (2004), Duoflush (2005) or 2in1 Fresh (2005).

Additionally, many efforts were spent in the development of products that never were launched. Some of them due to technical difficulties, others because of changes in strategy. Later on, despite the relative success of Ambi-Pur 3volution and later launches, like the National Geographic concept, the success of Ambi-Pur was never again comparable to the ‘golden decade’.

Ambi-Pur 3volution, 2006

By the end of 2004, in the context of serious concerns about the business situation of Ambi-Pur, it was decided to launch a new ‘star’ product to reach sales growth. The chosen idea, among some others, was 3volution.  Although the root of the idea was a cheap product for insecticides with 3 refills of thermoformed plastic, R&D Ambi-Pur turned it into something different and much better. The deep knowledge about fragrance development recommended capitalizing in consumer benefits linked to sensory perception. The product provides innovative benefits to consumers, improving the regular perception and bringing an interesting game of olfactory sensations.

Thus, the product idea was defined as a refill of 3 glass bottles with wick/cap and plug, put together with a plastic holder, in a device with 3 heaters and an electronic circuit to change the evaporation of the 3 bottles at intervals. The development of this new product was amazingly fast: it took only one year. Thus, 3volution was finally launched at the beginning of 2006.

The development of perfumes for this product involved the creation of ‘collections’ of 3 complementary perfumes, with both harmony and contrast. Special protocols for sensory testing were developed in order to test a changing product with new sensory benefits, including reduction of olfactory fatigue. Hundreds of fragrances were developed and tested to launch the four first variants: Heavenly Flowers, Freshly New Day, Oriental dreams and Seaside Breezes.

The launch of 3volution succeeded to providing growth to Ambi-Pur, and 2006 was the first year since 2002 when Ambi-Pur business grew again. However, despite its success, consumers are probably not yet aware about all benefits 3volution is providing them, and the question is whether they would be prepared to pay a bit more for it.

The future

The multinational Company Procter and Gamble bought Ambi-Pur in 2010 and is currently undertaking the brand management. It is not an easy task, but this Company has the resources to do it well.  A few people from the historical Ambi-Pur R&D team will follow the path of the Brand in this new stage. The rest will retire or move to new jobs. In the hands of P&G Ambi-Pur will certainly reach soon the best numbers of its history. In the meanwhile from Open-Senses we wish a lot of success to the new Ambi-Pur team in P&G.

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