Laundry Daze

By Christine Esposito, Associate Editor | March 13, 2013

From powders to single dose packs and pods, convenience and performance have driven the US detergent category over the last 50 years. And while consumers have benefitted from these all advances, they still don’t like doing laundry.

A lot has changed in the detergent category over the years. Just think about how much easier and greener the task has become since the first issue of Happi, (then called Detergent Age) rolled off the presses. Unfortunately, even after 50 years of innovation, one thing remains the same: nobody really likes doing laundry.

“Laundry has never been a favorite chore with most consumers and I don’t think that will ever change,” noted Carolyn Forte, director, home appliances and cleaning products, Good Housekeeping Research Institute. “Of course, there are some folks who love doing laundry, but we’ve found that most don’t.”

From its launch in 1946 to 1983, Tide only came in a powder. P&G added the first liquid variant in 1984 (above).
Now, Pods are the latest format for the category’s biggest brand.
Detergent makers know it too, thanks to consumer feedback and thousands of hours logged with focus groups.

“We hear from consumers that it is tedious and it is never ending. Unfortunately, we can’t make laundry go away,” quipped Janell Holas, senior brand manager, detergents innovation for Henkel.

Yet, the task is easier thanks to a combination of built-in stain fighters, in-wash booster products and modern appliances. Samsung, for example, recently released a WiFi-enabled washer, complete with an 8-inch LCD touch screen, that allows consumers to monitor cycle status and remotely start or pause the washer from anywhere in the house. In 1964, could any housewife have imagined such a scenario, much less infusing the scent of Apple Mango Tango into her family’s clothes?

Powder to the People

In the 1960s, innovations such as prewash soil and stain remover, laundry powders with enzymes and enzyme presoaks marked a time of change, but there was one constant: P&G’s Tide was No. 1—a pole position the brand has held since 1949.

“Tide has a certain equity,” said Greg McCoy, a senior archivist at P&G and Tide historian. “It has been a hallmark in American laundry rooms.”

Powder detergents held the biggest share of the detergent market for decades, although liquid technology had been around for many years. For instance, Wisk was introduced in 1956.

Wisk hit the market in the 1950s.
Wisk’s success at battling “ring around the collar” marked the start of the “gradual, but continual trend away from powders to liquids,” according to Ed Vlacich, executive VP-national brands at Sun Products Corp., which owns the Wisk brand.

It was a gradual shift for sure. As reported by Happi, heavy-duty liquids accounted for only 25% of the $3.4 billion market in 1984—the year P&G rolled out its first Tide liquid. Today, liquids dominate the $7.2 billion US laundry detergent category.

Traction in Compaction

In addition to the switch to liquids, another major change has been compaction. Unilever rolled out All Small & Mighty, a 3X product, in 2006. Almost 30 million bottles of All Small and Mighty were sold in 2007 alone, and the brand remains a favorite among consumers even today, now that is in the Sun Products’ stable.

Through the years, marketers would continue to develop concentrated formulas and products designed specifically for high-efficiency (HE) washers. NPD also centered on detergents that could save consumers time and money—think next-generation detergent plus fabric softener SKUs, multifunctional products that eliminated steps and cold-water formulations.

Chemists were also exploring plant-based ingredients in line with the growing green/natural movement, headlined by companies such as Seventh Generation. In 2011, the Burlington, VT-based firm reformulated its best-selling laundry liquids with an all-natural, plant-derived surfactant that combined ethylene oxide derived from sugar cane and plant-derived lauryl alcohol—making the products among the first to earn the USDA BioPreferred label. At the time, Seventh Generation CEO John Replogle called it “a cleaning industry Holy Grail of sorts…”

Method offers consumers concentrated formulas and stylish packaging.
Method has made its own mark, thanks to innovative design and formulation, as seen by its ability to offer consumers a triple concentrated liquid in August 2004.

“Given how big the category is, how much spend is required to be successful, and how loyal consumers are to their brands, we knew we had to be wildly innovative to build a long-term, sustainable proposition in laundry,” Method laundry business manager Hank Mercier, told Happi.

The detergent evolution becomes clear when looking at the so-called “traditional” brands in the category, like venerable Woolite.

“The brand has certainly evolved with ever-changing consumer laundry washing habits, fashion trends and infrastructural shifts in the laundry/washing machine space,” said Kevin Troung, associate brand manager, Woolite.

In the 1980s, for example, the brand added a gentle cycle powder detergent to care for trendy fabrics such as spandex, washable silk, polyester, suede and leather. In 2000, Woolite switched to surfactants that were completely biodegradable and in 2008, the brand concentrated its formulation by 2X. With the brand’s latest reformulations in 2010, the Woolite Darks and Everyday variants became compatible with HE and standard washers.

“The formulas were also enhanced with special active ingredients such as metal scavengers in Everyday and dye magnets in Darks to help keep the clothes you love looking like new, longer,” Troung told Happi.

There have been plenty of changes in packaging too. Thanks to compaction, heavy boxes of powder and large jugs began to shrink. Method shook up the category with a bottle that was smaller, but also stopped consumers’ eyes as they scanned the shelves. In addition, Seventh Generation took laundry detergent packaging to a new level of green with the 2011 introduction of a bottle made from 100% recycled cardboard and newspaper.

Unleashing the Unit Dose

Most recently, there has been an influx of unit dose products. P&G is the top player with Tide Pods. But it’s not the first time P&G has tried to push the single-dose concept on Americans.

“The biggest issue was that American consumers wanted controlof the dosing amount,” said McCoy, recalling P&G’s earlier forays in the space, namely Salvo detergent tablets, which were offered in the 1950s and 1960s, and Tide Multi ActionSheets, which came to market in the 1980s. Neither caught on with US homeowners.

But marketers are confident today’s consumer is ready for unit dose, evidenced by the number of SKUs offered across the category. In addition to Tide Pods, single dose SKUs can be found at Sun Products (All Mighty Pacs), Henkel (Purex UltraPacks) Church & Dwight (Arm & Hammer Power Paks) and Seventh Generation to name a few. According to SymphonyIRI, Chicago, unit dose detergents have quickly grabbed a 6% share of the market.

But some executives, like James Craigie of Church & Dwight, contend this fast-growing category is actually helping to shrink the category overall. Speaking to analysts during his firm’s fourth quarter earnings call last month, Craigie said compaction drove a 5% gain in the total laundry category in 2008-2009. But “consumers use less laundry detergent when they switch from liquid or powder to unit dose.”

C&D’s remedy: usher in the next round of compaction with its new Arm & Hammer Ultra Power 4X liquid. It cleans 60 loads of laundry in a 45oz bottle and consumers control the dose.

“Compaction will help the laundry detergent category,” said Craigie “and that’s why we are leading the effort.”

Not by Method’s measurements, as it has been selling an 8x concentrated laundry detergent since 2010. The super concentrate, which offers 50 loads, comes in a small 20oz bottle topped with a precision-dosing pump.

“Our focus has been on getting people over the initial shock that this little bottle is, in fact, a laundry detergent because we know when people try, they repeat at very, very high rates,” said Mercier. “I think you are starting to see a little more activity on the concentration front with a few 4x jugs. I’d love to believe this is due to the success we are having in the ultra-concentrated space.”

Growing the Category

There are growth opportunities in other areas too. For instance, Vlacich of Sun Products is confident that detergents designed for sensitive skin, like All Free Clear, hold great promise.

“It is a growing segment that hasn’t hit saturation yet,” he said.

At Henkel, the talk centers on value. Said Holas, “To Henkel, value doesn’t just mean a competitive price point; value means delivering the performance consumers want from a great brand at the right price.”

Forte predicts consumers will “soon see more detergents and laundry aids that can be used to treat stains without the need to wash the garment right away and formulas that are easier to measure and tailor to different size loads.”

Yet, there remains one problem with laundry that not even the best detergent can solve.

“Consumers still say the thing they hate most is folding the laundry and putting it away,” Forte said. “I haven’t seen anything to help with that, yet.”
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