UPDATE: After this article published, ABC News reported that the Consumer Product Safety Commission is warning consumers that some top-loading Samsung washers have reportedly exploded.
~ ~ ~
The laundry industry has come a long way since the days of plunging and scrubbing on a washboard. Today, consumers can set their washing machines from afar via cellphone, watch a spin cycle in action and separately clean their delicates in the same load as regular clothes—all at a time when washers, using less water and energy, are increasingly environmentally friendly.
"It's a very exciting time for appliances—it's been a sleepy category that for decades was mostly retailer-led by Sunday flyers," said Brian Jochum, senior director-marketing for the Kenmore, Craftsman and DieHard brands at Sears Holdings Corp. "But innovation is coming to appliances much the same way it has to other categories."
But laundry marketing can be an agitating job. Because every brand is innovating, marketers are tasked with communicating a point of difference for a product that is only replaced, on average, every 15 years. That's a challenge for companies like Whirlpool, which holds a 65% share of the $3.9 billion U.S. industry, according to market research firm IbisWorld. In addition, smaller brands such as Samsung and LG are ramping up their advertising—the former has tapped celeb couple Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard, for example—in order to chip away at existing giants. In the race for millennials, many of whom are beginning to buy homes, retailers and manufacturers are trying to build brand loyalty through emotional connections or by highlighting fancy design elements.
"A lot of the advertising spending itself is being done by smaller competitors who showpiece functionality," said Stephen Morea, an industry analyst covering the manufacturing space at IbisWorld. "They're battling for market share growth when larger companies like Whirlpool are trying to maintain the share they have now."
New government regulations advocating stricter environmental standards on both washers and dryers in recent years have helped propel the industry forward and spurred a new wave of purchases. Mr. Morea estimates that more efficient models with Energy Star ratings could shave as much as $350 of the energy bill for a washer and $250 for a dryer over the course of the machine's lifetime.
After three decades of absence, JC Penney returned to the appliance arena this past spring with a small pilot test in select markets that quickly expanded into 500 stores. Though the rollout includes kitchen products such as refrigerators as well as laundry appliances, JC Penney featured a washing machine in its inaugural marketing spot for the department. The commercial, created by agency McGarryBowen, is airing again this fall, along with a larger campaign designed to promote JC Penney as a home appliance destination.
"Appliances have become more like a piece of furniture," said Mary Beth West, exec VP-chief customer and marketing officer at the Plano, Texas-based retailer. "Rather than strictly about functionality, it's more about design." She noted that the chain is training its employees to be experts on best-sellers like the Samsung AddWash front-load washer and LG SideKick pedestal washer.
Benton Harbor, Mich.-based Whirlpool is hoping to emotionally unite with customers through its two-year-old "Every Day, Care" campaign, which includes a recent spot about a dad taking better care of his son. With Care Counts, an initiative in which the brand supplies laundry appliances to schools with kids in need, Whirlpool is trying to stand out in the crowd by standing for more than just clean clothes.
"It's a sea of cold metal. Everyone is really saying the same thing," said Mike Frease, senior VP-group creative director at DigitasLBi, who has worked on the Whirlpool account for almost four years. "All appliance makers are about making your life easier, which isn't something you can grasp a whole lot as a human being—it's about connecting with someone and saying, 'We understand what it's like to care for someone every day.'"
In recent years, Sears has tried to enhance its relationship with consumers by amplifying its content marketing. The Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based retailer uses a blog for its top-selling Kenmore proprietary brand to communicate tips on laundry, cooking and home maintenance to its customers. One recent entry provided a crash course in laundry for college students. The 709-unit Sears, which works with lead agency Havas Worldwide, has been marketing unique features in its Kenmore washers—such as a larger "Motherload" washer with a 6.2-cubic-feet capacity—and abilities in cleaning special sportswear fabrics. Sears will unveil a new TV campaign in the fourth quarter of that will spotlight more machine-specific innovations.
"If we can be a go-to resource for how to manage your home efficiently, we know you will be highly considerate of us when it comes to your next appliance purchase," said Mr. Jochum. "By educating people, engaging with them on content, we can increase our relationship [strength] with members."