Turning the Tide, Part 2

December 19, 2010 at 12:29 am Leave a comment

Can the king of the laundry aisle dominate dry cleaning?

Tide, Procter & Gamble’s megabrand, is expanding its horizons again. Last year, I blogged about the introduction of Tide Basic, a stripped-down version of the detergent intended to ply budget-minded consumers. Now, Tide is going beyond a line extension to a brand extension. The New York Times reports that P&G is introducing Tide Dry Cleaners.

The new dry cleaning stores are franchises, with each outlet using versions of Tide for wet laundry and offering discounts and giveaways on P&G products. Drive-through service, 24-hour pickup via lockers, and environmentally friendly practices further distinguish the chain. The iconic Tide bullseye is prominent in the signage and staff wear branded orange shirts.

There are challenges for P&G. The NYT article points out what many of us would assume: the dry cleaning industry is suffering amid the economic downturn. Cultural shifts are hurting cleaners too as business attire is becoming a week of casual Fridays. Case in point: I wore suits in my last corporate gig as AVP, Marketing Communications, for a nationwide lender. Jacket and tie have not been de rigueur during my subsequent two years as an independent consultant.

P&G is one of the biggest and most brilliant consumer product corporations on the planet. Just one of their brands–Pampers, Gillette, Mr. Clean, and CoverGirl are but a few–can dwarf entire companies in revenue and awareness. Billion-dollar sales are beautiful, but flatlines are dismaying. The NYT article explains that lack of sales growth in the U.S. is the impetus for the Tide venture, a way to leverage the brand anew.

Tide may already be in the clean clothes business, but placing that bullseye on a dry cleaning chain constitutes a brand extension, the application of a brand known for one type of product or service to a new category. It isn’t the same as a line extension, a new product/service in the brand’s established category. Tide is a study in line extension. A quick count on their website revealed more than 30 varieties of the detergent itself. Tide Stain Release and Tide on the Go add several more SKUs. When it comes to the perils of extensions, I go with the long-standing warnings of Al and Laura Ries. Al’s landmark book Positioning offers cautionary tales of numerous extensions. In dissecting Gap’s rebranding fail, Laura blogs about their diffusion in the pursuit of babies and teens.

Some may argue if such extensions are “line,” staying within category, or “brand,” venturing into a separate realm. Some may say that Tide proves line extension works, given its dominance in detergent with 30-plus permutations. Decision makers in Cincinnati have said that the dry cleaning foray is a natural. It isn’t.

P&G is getting into real estate, labor and operational issues that do not figure in selling the primary Tide brand. And no, these things are not just “the franchisees’ problems.” If P&G is concerned about a saturated, mature market blunting Tide’s growth, the answer is not trying to penetrate the saturated, mature market of dry cleaning. But can the mighty Tide brand grab share in a sector where mom-and-pops still reign? My dry cleaner is not worried.

When picking up a sportcoat and three shirts, I asked the proprietor of Wendy Cleaners about the P&G threat. He said that his customers value expertise and believe in supporting small businesses. He also said that the special detergent he uses for wet laundry is better than Tide. He didn’t ask when I’d start bringing in more suits again. He knows things have changed.


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