The Dirt on Laundry Trends Around the World

Unilever, P&G, Henkel Adjust Products to Suit Cultural Preferences -- and Washing Temperatures

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BATAVIA, Ohio ( -- Every half hour 7 million people in the world wash their clothes with Unilever products, and 6 million of them do so by hand.

That rather jarring statistic, courtesy of Unilever Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Keith Weed, helps explain Unilever's exit from North American laundry a few years ago: The biggest growth markets are where people are dreaming of moving up from hand washing to their first hand-cranked or semi-automatic washing machine, or are looking for lower-suds products or rinse additives that will let them make fewer or shorter trips to the well or river.

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But while the booming population and economic growth in the developing world has captured an outsized amount of marketers' attention in laundry -- one of the few package-goods categories to consistently get so much technology, research and advertising -- another hotly fought front in the global laundry war is Europe, where an outsized amount of sales from the category occur. Europe accounts for 45% of the world's $41 billion in annual spending on laundry products according to Datamonitor, despite having only 11% of its population.

Americans may consider themselves advanced, but they are well behind Western Europe in washer technology and degree of involvement in clothes washing. That's particularly true of Germany, where top-of-the-line horizontal-axis front loaders are the norm and people tend to wash their clothes in very high temperatures. Using highly specialized products for highly specialized tasks is commonplace.

'Nintendo kids'
Europe is embroiled in a new sort of cold war as the major laundry players launch a range of products promising better performance from cold-water washing, most recently Procter & Gamble Co.'s Ariel gel with Actilift. By contrast, in India, P&G and Unilever are in more of a hot war combining price cuts and competitive advertising claims, with both sides having had to pare back or scrap ads under court order in recent months.

Marketers do seek to capitalize on some global trends and attitudes, such as a preference for strong floral fragrances that spans southern Europe, Latin America and Asian markets. But even in broad trends, the world is often moving in opposite directions at once. For example, most people in the U.S. and northern Europe prefer lighter fragrances their southern peers would find too watered down -- or as having no scent at all.

In developing markets, the combination of warm temperatures, sweat and heavy physical labor create a need for powerful washing and stain removal, with much of the power supplied by elbow grease. Compare that to the U.S., where Eric Schwartz, VP-laundry marketing for Henkel U.S., identifies a segment he calls "Nintendo Kids." They're the growing number of youths who spend more time indoors playing video games than outdoors getting grass and ground-in dirt stains that generate challenging laundry problems.

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For those challenges, Unilever markets four of its regional brands -- Persil, Skip, Via and Omo -- under a common "Dirt is Good" logo and positioning. For more premium brands, dirt is indeed good, but it's also good for kids, as Randy Quinn, exec VP global laundry for Unilever sees it.

"The proposition is based on the fundamental insight that giving children the ability to get dirty and experience life as part of the growing up process is healthy for their development and gives moms the freedom to say, 'I can let my children get dirty without worrying about whether I can get clothes clean,'" he said.

But Mr. Quinn, who at Unilever has also worked in roles in global personal care and household cleaners as well as food and beverage marketing duties that spanned North and South America, finds laundry generally resists global homogenization. While Unilever in recent years has brought Chinese and Italian frozen entrees to the U.S. under the P.F. Chang's and Bertolli brands, few Americans clamor for Chinese and Italian laundry products.

"A lot of the process of washing clothes is passed down from generation to generation," Mr. Quinn said. "A lot of that is based on particular cultures and habits that get passed along."

Even within the same country, practices can vary significantly. During a trip to Brazil in May, Mr. Quinn visited two homes and washed clothes alongside consumers. One house hand washed exclusively. The other used a machine called a tanquinho that's unique to Brazil. "I'd describe it almost as a blender," he said. "It whips the clothes around and throws out a high level of lather to the extent that people will wash their clothes and then put a second load into the machine, because there's lots of lather left."

Rinsing is then done by hand, often in a separate bucket. Dealing with that requires a high-foaming detergent along with an "easy rinse" or "one rinse" fabric conditioner (sold under the Omo Tanquinho line) that can help quickly wash away all the suds, he said.

The shift to washing machines generally -- but not entirely -- is a function of economic development, with China advancing far faster in that area than India, Mr. Quinn said. But laundry habits die hard, even in the face of economic progress. He noted a Brazilian consumer who, despite having a tanquinho machine, still felt the need to hand scrub clothes with any significant stains, where consumers in developed markets are willing to let the machine and detergent do all the work.

High-temp washing
But generalizations even about developed markets are difficult. Mr. Schwartz, who previously served in Henkel's Dusseldorf headquarters working on global laundry and is married to a German woman, has seen some of the differences first-hand, particularly the high-temperature washing in Germany and much of the rest of Western Europe.

As of a few years ago, the average laundry load in Western Europe was washed at 45 degrees Celsius, vs. 30 degrees in the U.S. and 20 degrees in Japan, he said, though Europeans increasingly are dialing down the heat in response to energy costs, environmental concerns and new cold-water products.

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As a general rule, temperature preferences and laundry additive use move inversely, said Henkel's Mr. Schwartz. So people in the U.S., and to an even greater extent Japan, use more power-boosting additives to compensate for the fact that they're not getting the cleaning power of hotter water. On the other hand, as Europeans use cooler water, they're also using antibacterial additives, which exist in Asia but not really in the U.S.

"The consumer belief [in much of Western Europe] is to get my clothes really clean, I need to almost boil them, part of that belief is in the sanitizing properties of very hot water," Mr. Schwartz said. "So when consumers turn down the dial and look to use lower-water temperatures, they're often looking for product to help them kill germs."

While Europeans are using more antibacterial additives, they use little chlorine bleach, which is common in the U.S., Latin America and the Middle East/Africa countries, Mr. Schwartz said. The conversion of detergents from powder to liquid is much further along in the U.S. than Europe or Japan, and laundry bars or powders are the predominant form in developing markets.

Western axis
Laundry has been a critical focal point of competition among global players in part because it's a "wedge category" that provides needed scale for them to economically compete in new countries. But it's also a growing portion of the industry's environmental footprint as the single biggest driver of water and energy use.

Ultimately, the world is slowly moving toward Western European-style horizontal-axis machines, which use a quarter to a fifth of the water U.S. vertical agitator-style machines use during the wash cycle. About a third of the U.S. market is now in such machines, but it could take decades for the transition to be complete.

But the first step up for most of the world's consumers is from hand washing to semi-automatic or automatic washers that can use more, not less water than hand washing, Mr. Quinn said. Even so, more efficient detergents and rinse additives can reduce water usage to the point that it's nearly a wash.

"If you reduce the number of rinses to one or two [from the traditional three or four] with semi-automatic machines," Mr. Quinn said, "there's not a significant difference in the water used in a machine wash vs. a hand wash."

But he said with water being such a big issue in a number of developing market, "I think that will at some point provide a level of limitation in terms of what consumers do. Whether that means it will slow down the adoption of machines or the way you wash with the machines will change ... will be evolving over time."

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