Can Clorox Bring Green to the Mainstream?

With Burt's Bees, Green Works Brands, Bleach Maker Is Hoping to Change Public Perception

By Published on .

Jacquelyn Ottman
Jacquelyn Ottman
Sydnee Grushack
Sydnee Grushack
Clorox Co., maker of the iconic bleach, is attempting to make existing brands more sustainable and invest in new sustainable brands through internal development and acquisition. It remains to be seen, however, whether a company so strongly associated with "white" will be able to make it as "green."

Oakland, Calif.-based Clorox acquired Burt's Bees in November 2007. Burt's line of personal-care products is easily recognizable by its yellow and tan packaging, emblazoned with the bearded face of co-founder Burt Shavitz. Started in 1989 by Shavitz and graphic designer Roxanne Quimby, the Maine-based company grew quickly, doubling sales every year since 1994, with profits topping $250 million in 2006, according to the company. Success was the result of word of mouth from happy customers -- even from people who just valued the quality and were fairly indifferent to the natural ingredients.

Clorox is attempting to make Burt's Bees more mainstream but, in our opinion, is losing much of the charm and rustic appeal that have won its products such loyal fans. For example, before being backed by the bleach giant, Burt's did no advertising. But now, ads launched in 2008 running in magazines such as People, Oprah and Allure feature nude body parts and side-by-side comparisons of ingredients.

Far from its roots
According to Mike Indursky, chief marketing and strategic officer of Burt's Bees, "The images we use in our ads emphasize the beauty, preciousness and vulnerability of your skin." However, we believe such advertising leaves Burt's undistinguished from other personal-care pitches. A baby-product ad showing a naked baby on a grassy background is almost laughably cliché. Its headline "How do you get all the snuggly without the scary?" is a far cry from the company's unpretentious roots. Clorox: Bring back Burt and the distinctive yellow graphics or proceed at your own marketing peril!

Clorox's influence has produced some other radical changes to the Burt's Bees line. New packaging for a woman's skin-care line, for instance, is purple (not yellow) and features a smiling, 40ish woman, not Burt. The only reference to the original characteristic packaging is two cartoon bees and the word "Burt's" in a different, childish font. The new men's skin-care line retains the old block font, but puts it onto black bottles.

In addition to such observable changes, it is possible that Clorox may alter some of Burt's practices and natural formulas. After all, Clorox still uses animal testing and the bulk of their offerings still rely on synthetic chemical formulas.

Selling out?
Nevertheless, in a Jan. 6 New York Times article, "Can Burt's Turn Clorox Green?" Burt's Bees CEO John Replogle defends his company: "Don't judge Clorox as much by where they've been as much as where they intend to go." On the subject of animal testing, Replogle assures consumers that Clorox uses it only when "required by a regulatory body" and that they are working to eliminate it altogether. In a recent Burt's Bees blog post, he also highlights some of the benefits the partnership with Clorox has given Burt's, such as allowing the company to host their first Planet Earth Day Celebration in Raleigh, N.C., and to donate $10,000 worth of products to AmeriCares to benefit needy children.
Ads launched in 2008 in an attempt to make Burt's Bees more mainstream could end up losing the company some of its loyal fans.
Ads launched in 2008 in an attempt to make Burt's Bees more mainstream could end up losing the company some of its loyal fans.

Still, many critics have sworn off Burt's Bees products for good due to their association with Clorox, and call Quimby a "sell-out," despite her assertions that some of her profits will help conserve land in Maine. Will Clorox be able to attract enough new users to Burt's Bees to justify the acquisition?

Meanwhile, in June, Clorox launched Green Works, its first new brand launch in decades. Green Works is a line of cleaning products featuring natural ingredients such as coconut and lemon oil, and highlighting a biodegradable and non-allergenic formula. Green Works is entering a market dominated by cleaners made of synthetic chemicals, but also competes with alternatives, such as Method and Seventh Generation.

Green Works is the first line to be marketed by a major consumer products company -- the Clorox logo is displayed proudly on the label -- and will be competing with other Clorox products such as Pine-Sol, Clorox Clean-up and Formula 409. To underscore the difference between Green Works and these other products, the bottles sport green and blue labels with a big yellow flower in addition to logos from the Sierra Club and the EPA's Design for the Environment program. A Clorox logo is in the corner "to communicate that this is a trusted source," said Matt Kohler, brand manager for the Green Works line.

In theory, the Clorox label is intended to draw more mainstream customers than "deep green" brands like Seventh Generation, which come with a higher premium and the allure of being manufactured by a truly environmentally responsible company. To provide performance assurance to mainstream consumers still wary of green products, its website underscores the fact that it still has "the power you expect from Clorox."

Provoking confusion
Linking Green Works to Clorox may prove successful, but may also provoke confusion and criticism, as the Clorox Co. is strongly associated with disinfection, which Green Works does not deliver. Additionally, the company itself is not strongly associated with green, so why should customers believe them? It would seem that Green Works should be able to stand on its own, given that its cleaning power was equitable to competitors in blind testing.
Jacquelyn Ottman is the president and founder of J. Ottman Consulting. She is author of "Green Marketing: Opportunity for Innovation."
Sydnee Grushack is an intern at J. Ottman Consulting in New York. She is a junior at Emory University in Atlanta, seeking a Bachelor of Science in environmental studies.

There is no industry or government standard for the term "natural" (as there is for "organic") and so Green Works is operating in shaky territory. However, Green Works provides transparency in the form of an ingredient list (unlike most household cleaners, including the majority from Clorox's other lines), boasting "99% natural" ingredients, defined on the company's website as nonpetrochemical, plant-based sources. The 1% that is not natural represents Kathon, a preservative; and the blue and yellow dyes for the green solutions, which are both derived from petrochemicals. So how much does this 1% matter? For cleaning products, a preservative may be somewhat necessary, but Method is able to include one at levels less than 0.1%, the company claims; and Seventh Generation is even lower, indicating it at less than 0.05%. Synthetic dyes, on the other hand, are absent from the other two natural companies and contaminate the product for no reason other than aesthetics.

Another feature that deserves a closer look is the Sierra Club logo. Green Works is the first household-good product that the Sierra Club has publicly endorsed, and this fact begs the question, why Green Works? Perhaps it is the compensation Sierra Club receives that, in our view, discredits the endorsement.

In its first four months of sales the Green Works line brought in $5.8 million, besting Seventh Generation. But with many questions unanswered, the question remains, will it last?
Most Popular
In this article: