P&G, rivals give softeners hard push

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Marketers are fluffing up the once relatively sleepy $1 billion-plus fabric-softener category this spring, as Procter & Gamble Co. launches Gain fabric softener and Church & Dwight Co. extends Arm & Hammer from laundry detergents and dryer sheets into liquid fabric softeners.

Major household-products players are gearing up offerings aimed at the value-conscious and Hispanic consumers in a hotly contested race to be No. 2 in the U.S. laundry business, where walls between detergents and softeners are crumbling fast. Challengers long ago gave up overtaking P&G's $2 billion behemoth Tide, but the race for No. 2 pits five brands with measured retail sales between $200 million and $400 million each.

A P&G spokesman said it is still deciding if it will support its Gain fabric softener, which ships to retailers this week, with tags on 30-second TV ads for Gain detergent from Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett Co., Toronto, or whether it will get its own ads. The effort includes targeted Hispanic promotion efforts. Arm & Hammer's line, which began shipping earlier this month, will be backed with newspaper coupons and in-store promotions in the spring.

P&G also is bolstering Downy, the leading softener brand and current No. 2 in overall laundry care, by replacing Downy Enhancer with an improved Downy Advanced FormulaGrey Global Group, New York, handles Downy. The Gain and Downy franchises will get more than $100 million in marketing this year, according to retail buyers.

The moves follow Unilever's extension last year of All into softeners, which, combined with merging Surf detergent into All, is part of Unilever's strategy to push the brand past Downy as No. 2 in overall laundry. Though All rang up only $12 million in fabric-softener sales through Jan. 26, according to Information Resources Inc. data that exclude Wal-Mart Stores, the brand's overall sales of $375 million (including All and Surf detergents) put it within striking distance of Downy's $400 million.

fending off Purex

But Gain's fabric softener could help thwart those ambitions. Gain has capitalized on its fragrance positioning to build sales in the fast-growing U.S. Hispanic market. It fended off a surge by Dial Corp.'s Purex to remain No. 2 in dollar sales last year.

"We learned from the Tide and Downy Clean Breeze launch that consumers want matching scents from their detergent and fabric softener," a P&G spokeswoman said.

Colgate-Palmolive Co.'s Suavitel, extended from Mexico in 1996, has shown the power of Hispanics in the category. It has been the fastest-growing U.S. softener brand in recent years, up 15% to $34.5 million in sales in the 52 weeks ended Jan. 26, despite a 1.6% drop for the broader $950 million category. In a reverse move of sorts, Unilever is launching Snuggle into Mexico (see related story, p. 20).

All the activity in the category, however, puzzles some retailers. "The category is flat," said one executive. "So anything P&G gets for Gain is probably coming from Downy."

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