In Search of A Better Clean

November 9, 2005

New applications and multifunctional products have created laundry detergents that do more than just clean clothes

How clean is clean? When it comes to laundry detergents, consumer demand is more complex than ever, comprising a variety of desirable benefits ranging from antibacterial to fragrant to UV-protectant in addition to clean.

Following an across-the-board multifunctional-product trend, detergents are sporting a host of properties to complement what amounts to a very basic set of cleansing ingredients.

Bells and whistles aside, all major laundry detergents comprise the same key elements. So why do laundry detergents claim such a broad variety of benefits? Although the cleaning action is basic, most consumers just can’t resist all the additives—brighteners, softeners, color-safe bleach, fragrance—that give the impression of a cleaner clean. Not blind to this fact, major detergent manufacturers are at the ready with nearly any benefit a consumer might demand, as well as improved ease of use and broader applications.

The majority of detergent improvements have been in either money- or time-saving benefits. Wrinkle-reducers cut down on ironing time; color-safe bleaches eliminate the need to sort laundry; fragrances and softeners reduce the amount of separate fabric softener liquids or sheets a consumer must use. These general time-saving or multi-functional trends are evident in all areas of consumer use, and detergents have followed that lead.

Liquids Still Lead
A continuing preference for liquids over powders is evident: liquid laundry detergent sales rose 9.6% to $2.8 billion for the year ended Oct. 8, according to Information Resources, Inc. (IRI), Chicago. At the same time, powdered detergent sales fell 4.4%, to $1.9 billion.

Convenience, ever the motivating factor for consumers jockeying for free time while maintaining standards of quality, seems to be the key factor. “Liquids are perceived to be more convenient and less messy than powders,” explained Cindy Demers, vice president, corporate and government affairs, Dial Corporation.

Despite some resistance to liquid detergents at their initial introduction on the market nearly three decades ago, consumers quickly caught on to the benefits, according to Ms. Demers.

“The performance gap has decreased between liquid formulations, initially lower in performance, and powder formulations,” she explained. “Therefore, consumers concerned with liquids are now receiving overall performance that is similar to powder.”

Manufacturer encouragement may also be a factor in the preference of liquids over powders. “Retailers are continuing to use liquids as their lead items,” revealed Michael Simone, segment marketing manager, Church & Dwight, Princeton, NJ. “Initially liquid detergent markets were primarily concentrated in the Northeast, but with national chains and acquisitions, the liquid detergent market has expanded to the West and become nationwide.”

Leaders in the liquid laundry detergent sector for the year ended Oct. 8 were Procter & Gamble, with Tide and Ultra Tide liquids; Uni-lever, with All and Wisk and Dial with Purex. Tide has topped the laundry detergent sales charts for as long as anyone can remember, and continues to lead the market in both liquids and powders. However, even P&G saw a decline in the powdered form of its top-selling product: Tide Powder dropped 8.9% to $684.1 million for the year ended Oct. 8, according to IRI.

Given the fact that most powders are more economical than liquids load-for-load, it would seem logical for a substantial segment of consumers to forego the convenience factor of liquids, so what accounts for liquid’s continuing lead? According to Marvin Matises, The Galileo Idea Group, Naperville, IL, an additional factor in the popularity of liquids might be “form loyalty,” the tendency for consumers to maintain the same delivery method rather than staying with the same brand.

Explained Mr. Matises, “If a customer is at the store and sees that her specific liquid brand is not available, he or she is more likely to choose a different-brand liquid than the same-brand powder.” This phenomenon is referred to as form loyalty as opposed to brand loyalty, and is more prevalent than one might think, Mr. Matises maintained.

Powering Up Powders
Despite liquids’ obvious lead, it is unlikely that powders will disappear entirely, according to industry experts. Aside from the fact that an albeit smaller segment maintains loyalty to powders, there is the additional logic that a manufacturer must avoid over-advertising one delivery system as compared to another, hence inadvertently phasing out a portion of its own business.

Many powdered detergents are currently being touted as containing a variety of functions—color-safe bleaches, deep-cleaning stain fighters, updated scents—which make them attractive to consumers, and powders across the board have been updated or improved upon in recent years in an effort to drum up interest in a fading category.

Reformulating or improving upon product actives may help boost interest in powdered detergents, according to Mr. Simone of Church & Dwight. The company is currently working on an updated version of Arm & Hammer, called FabriCare, which boasts more than simple stain-fighting properties and deep cleansing. The product contains baking soda and peroxide to enhance cleaning performance while helping to protect fabrics from fading by neutralizing the chlorine in wash water, according to company executives.

“Arm & Hammer is a trusted brand name,” observed Mr. Simone. “Consumers know they can trust the product. It has been dermatologist-tested and is free of perfumes and dyes, while offering the germ-killing power of bleach.”

Gain with Bleach, another bacteria-fighting powder, kills 99.9% of the germs that cause odors in clothing, according to Procter & Gamble executives. Gain was one of relatively few powder brands last year which recorded an increase rather than a decrease in sales, up more than 17% from the previous year, according to IRI.

However, not all industry experts agree on the relevance of bacteria elimination in the laundry detergent sector. Insisted Ms. Demers of Dial Corporation, “Certain brands have decided that antibacterial claims are important. However, our consumers have communicated that this benefit is a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘must have.’”

She conceded, however, that there is a niche for such products and, though probably not a future power-benefit, germ-killing properties will receive at least some attention from health-conscious consumers.

Last year, Cheer brand managers explored another avenue with the launch of Cheer With Liquifiber, a revolutionary technology that interweaves between the fibers to help prevent wear and maintain fabric vibrancy. According to Procter & Gamble, the constant rubbing together of wet fabrics in the wash can cause the fibers to break away from the surface of the fabric, resulting in fuzzing and fading. The Liquifiber technology disperses through the water, interweaving between the fabric’s fibers to reduce the breakaway tendency, company executives explained.

Purex has also improved on its powdered detergent with an improved formula that helps prevent dirt from settling back on laundry. In addition, the brand offers a bleach alternative with its Purex ColorSafe Bleach and a new fragrance with Purex Mountain Breeze. Following a general trend toward luxury and fragrance-therapeutic products, a newer selling point for the laundry category is the scent that the product leaves on the consumer’s clothing.

“Fragrance is a key category growth driver,” claimed Ms. Demers. “Consumers want choices, and new fragrance variants in the form of line extensions give them the choice of using one fragrance for linens and another fragrance for clothes.”

This is evidenced in the success of liquid Surf, a product that increased more than 27% in sales in the year ended Oct. 8. The line is available in both liquids and powders and offers fragrances such as Lemon Fresh (lemon scented) and Sun Fresh (orange-scented). It is touted as a product which specifically attacks malodors in clothing, leaving them fresh-smelling and therefore, in the consumer’s eyes, cleaner.

Room for Improvement
Despite their sales superiority, liquids are improving too, industry executives agreed.

Bleach Alternative, Free/Clear and Mountain Breeze scented Purex are all available in a liquid counterpart to updated powders. The line also includes Improved Formula Purex, which delivers enhanced cleaning power at the same economical value, company executives said. The newer technology involves absorbing dirt and suspending it in the washer in order to prevent the dirt from settling back on the clothing.

Gain with Bleach Alternative and Surf both offer bleaching/whitening lines, another fast-growing laundry segment. Gain with Bleach Alternative boasts the ability to whiten whites, clean clothes and deliver Gain’s original fresh scent, while Surf has introduced Soda Bright, a garment whitener. “Not having to separate colors and whites is a major step for today’s consumer,” noted Mr. Matises of The Galileo Idea Group. “It’s quicker and easier for the consumer who is pressed for time.”

Purpose-specific detergents are also finding a niche. Wisk’s line has expanded to include a variety of additional actions. Wrinkle Reducer Wisk is specially formulated to help reduce wrinkles while maintaining all of the product’s original cleaning properties and scent. Wisk with ColorHold Bleaching Action whitens without bleach and brightens colors, according to company executives. Wisk Free of Perfumes & Clear Dyes addresses the needs of consumers with sensitive skin.

Tide reinforced its top position with TideKick, a deep-cleaning system which utilizes guar gum to attract dirt from the wash water. The detergent’s proprietary “suspension” technology prevents dirt in the wash water from being redistributed from item to item, according to company executives.For the year ended Oct. 8, sales of Ultra Tide lifted 5%; Wisk increased 4%; and Ultra Purex increased by an impressive 30%. USA Detergents’ value based brand, Xtra, also made the top 10, at a 15% increase to $103 million, according to IRI.

All Wrapped Up
Newest on the scene in 2000 were laundry tablets, which deliver a controlled dosage application and unparalleled convenience.

The tablet concept is not entirely new, however: in the 1970s Procter & Gamble released Salvo and Unilever introduced VIM. The tablet concept, however, may have been ahead of its time, according to Mr. Matises of The Galileo Idea Group, and the products did not capture as much attention as expected.

“Today’s lifestyle trend, not just in laundry detergents but in virtually all consumer sectors, is in products geared toward convenience,” said Mr. Matises. “When Salvo and VIM were initially introduced, however, convenience may not have been as much of a driving factor as it is today.”

The products also did not perform as well as consumers—and the manufacturers—had expected. “Unfortunately, the earlier tablet forms didn’t dissolve well in the wash, particularly in cold water,” Mr. Matises explained. “But today’s formulations have been updated and should not only dissolve more completely, but some in fact effervesce upon contact with the water, showing the consumer that the product is performing.”

The effervescent action, along with improved formulations, are geared toward building consumer confidence in what amounts to a comparatively newer application in the laundry detergent sector. The concept is a good fit for today’s consumer demand for ease-of-use or convenience items. Tablet form detergents currently on the market include Wisk Double Action Laundry tablets by Unilever, Purex tabs by Dial and Tide Rapid Action tablets by Procter & Gamble.

P&G executives say that the updated Tide Rapid Action Tablets have a special coating formulated to dissolve immediately in the washer, releasing cleaning and stain-fighting agents. The tablets are available in two-tablet packs for a single load.

“Tide Rapid Action Tablets provide the same outstanding level of cleaning as Tide in quick and easy tablet form, without mess or dosing worries,” said Craig Bahner, marketing director, U.S. Laundry, P&G. “We are pleased to offer consumers trusted Tide performance in tablet form and create an entirely new segment in laundry.”

According to Mr. Bahner, initial consumer testing has indicated that the product will be well received. “We believe that tablets will create a whole new generation of Tide lovers,” Mr. Bahner predicted.

The tablets effervesce on contact with the water and have a fast-dissolving coating that breaks apart to a soft core which releases Tide’s cleaning power, he said.

Wisk tablets were introduced in 2000, while Purex tablets are due to come out early this year. “Tablets are an interesting product delivery option,” Ms. Demers observed. “But two consumer issues need to be addressed for this product form to be successful: first overcoming the fear that the tablet will not dissolve; and second, discovering whether consumers believe the tablet is more convenient and a good value given their cost per wash versus other forms.”

“The question now becomes whether or not the convenience of the product outweighs the price premium,” Mr. Matises pointed out. “Today’s formulations are superior, and there is no mess, no measuring and no spilling with a tablet application. However, the premium price is definitely higher per wash than most powders and liquids.” He noted that although the recommended use for the new tablets is two tablets per small washload, most consumers—especially households that include children—routinely wash in much larger loads, which require successively more tablets.

Michael Simone of Church & Dwight agreed. “We are aware of the various tablets currently on the market,” he insisted, “but we are taking a wait-and-see approach on tablet applications. We will be evaluating these segments in the time to come.”

Of course, price premium on newer convenience products is often an issue when the product is initially released to the public. Even liquid detergents were met with some resistance at their public debut in the 1960s due to the higher average price per washload. However, the benefits outweighed the then-substantial price difference.

Tablets may experience this evolution as well, according to Mr. Matises. “If laundry tablets succeed in today’s market, what we will most likely see in the future will be a value-added positioning of the product, which means a product that not only cleans but will contain fabric softening properties, colorfast actives or whitening benefits,” Mr. Matises opined.

Predictions aside, it is unlikely that the influx of detergent innovations will slow any time soon. As customer demand becomes more specific and free time grows ever shorter, the market is prepared to compensate with newer products, convenient delivery systems and all the added benefits a customer can desire.