Unilever.  Monster global company.

Owns mega amounts of products you probably have in your refrigerator and medicine cabinet.  If you don’t believe me, look here and see.

According to Keith Weed, Unilever’s chief marketing and communications officer, every half hour 7,000,000 people in the world wash their clothes with a Unilever product….

But wait, here’s the kicker.

Of those 7,000,000 launderers, 6,000,000 of them do so by hand.

So, where is Unilever concentrating their marketing?  That’s right, not here in the United States of Spin Cycle America.

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.

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.

“A lot of the process of washing clothes is passed down from generation to generation,” Quinn says. “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, 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,” says Quinn. “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, Quinn notes.

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.

Even as recent as 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.  However, Europeans increasingly are dialing down the heat in response to energy costs, environmental concerns and new cold-water products.

As a general rule, temperature preferences and laundry additive use move inversely.  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.

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. 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.

What do you think a bushman from the Kalahari would think of the drive-through window at your local dry cleaner?

So sayeth the StickMonkey.


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