The Story of Cif or is that Jif?

Picture1Europe, household cleaning and the politics of brand harmonisation

One of the Brand Historian’s less glorious moments – at least as far as his mother is concerned – was the part he played in the rebranding of Jif to Cif.

One small letter perhaps, but a whole lot of trouble for me. Not to mention all that talk of the betrayal of Great British virtues like cleanliness in favour of something foreign and distinctly dodgy sounding.

To understand why feelings ran so high and tin hats were de rigour in the marketing department, we have to go back in time to when Jif first came twinkling into our kitchens and bathrooms.

Jif was the world’s first LAC. Marketing folk love a good acronym, and LAC stands for Liquid Abrasive Cleaner, and as such – cue fanfare – it is a minor technological miracle to boot. Until Jif arrived, the heavy artillery in the war against kitchen and the bathroom crud were scouring powders. These were cardboard tubes full of white-speckled chemicals with names like Ajax and Vim. On good old-fashioned building materials like enamel baths, they did the business without fuss, even if they were rather unpleasant to handle. But in the 1960s, as man-made materials became more popular in bathrooms and kitchens, old guard scouring powders could easily scratch and ruin that new avocado bathroom suite.

This is where Jif scored. Jif consisted of a thick cream in which were suspended small micro-particulates which cleaned surfaces effectively without scratching them. Some will remember the launch advert which featured a manic, twizzling ice skater whose blades cutting through ice demonstrated, at least metaphorically, the damage scourers could do to baths. Soon Jif garnered a gleaming reputation as the housewife’s favourite and essential partner in the war against grime. With the addition of a little elbow grease supplied by the user, Jif could be relied upon to work wonders on even the most unappetisingly carbonised hobs.

Interestingly, the product had been originally launched in 1969 in France where it was called Cif. But as the brand was rolled out across Europe and because think local was the prevailing strategy of the day, it resulted in an array of minor variations to the name which included Viss, Vim and of course, Jif. At least the familiar white and green packaging was more consistent, but not completely: In the Netherlands, the bottle was orange and red in honour of the Dutch Royal family.

Thirty years later, attitudes to cleaning had changed considerably and in what was becoming perhaps a less fastidious age, Jif Cream Cleaner was being made redundant by a range of modern and more convenient solutions like trigger packs and cleaning wipes. Jif’s owner, Unilever, decided the brand was having a mid-life crisis and needed to be shaken up a bit.

At that time, there was a fashion in marketing for brand harmonisation. This is where for reasons of cost saving, manufacturing simplicity or marketing efficiencies, similar products with differing identities across countries are converged towards one name and pack design. Famous name local favourites started to to be replaced by unfamiliar new brands. In the UK, Marathon lost out to Snickers, and Opal Fruits became Starburst.

So back now to what my mum calls my far-from-finest-hour. Because in focus groups consumers were saying that heavy duty cleaning was old hat, a whole new strategy was built based around more convenient products that seemed to better suited to the zeitgeist. And to make sure the consumer spotted this important news about the brand’s evolution, a key part of the marketing plan was to tell the consumer that Jif’s name was changing to Cif.

The consumer did indeed spot this news and she, in the guise of my mother, immediately sent me straight to the naughty step. “What’s all this, Kif?” she said. And she wasn’t the only one who let Unilever know what they thought of the new name. Little Englander anger was sharp and loud in Lever’s postbag.

But here’s the surprising thing: just six months later, despite all the sound and the fury, Cif was growing strongly again in the UK. For the first time in years.

Today my mum still loves her tough but gentle LAC chum in the war against crud. And, yes, she does still call it Jif – but perhaps there’s a big idea there?

Will Boris’ Big Bold Britain see another rebrand? ‘Let’s do Jif, ‘ did I hear someone say?

A bientôt!

Paul Christopher Walton

The Brand Historian:

Forays into the annals and archives of the brands we grew up with.