Branding success: When Tide meets the drug economy, and comes out clean

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The tide website
Proctor and Gamble's website for Tide detergent


new york tide storyI’m going to take away some of the punch from this New York magazine article, which starts off with a mystery. Why has Tide laundry detergent been flying off the shelves of supermarkets in places like Bowie Maryland (near Washington, DC), to such an extent that theft of the laundry detergent has reached the stage of industrial-level shoplifting?

The call that came in from a local Safeway one day in March 2011 was unlike any the Organized Retail Crime Unit of the Prince George’s County Police Department had fielded before. The grocery store, located in suburban Bowie, Maryland, had been robbed repeatedly. But in every incident the only products taken were bottles—many, many bottles—of the liquid laundry detergent Tide. “They were losing $10,000 to $15,000 a month, with people just taking it off the shelves,” recalls Sergeant Aubrey Thompson, who heads the team. When Thompson and his officers arrived to investigate, they stumbled onto another apparent Tide theft in progress and busted two men who’d piled 100 or so of the bright-orange jugs into their Honda. The next day, Thompson returned to the store’s parking lot to tape a television interview about the crimes. A different robber took advantage of the distraction to make off with twenty more bottles.

Well, the answer is more than a redefinition of “money laundering” though, it seems, Tide has become a unit of currency in the drug economy.  You can easily trade the detergent for crack at “drug supermarket” dealers, who will buy all you can sell.

It turns out there are many pieces to this puzzle, which is now testing the ingenuity of police and legitimate supermarkets.

First, the detergent is not something easy to thwart with conventional anti-shoplifting methods.  You might be able to put electronic devices and expensive goods behind security locks, but this sort of system hardly works for large bottles of liquid Tide, which often needs to be sold at a lower margin because of its higher price (which the product commands because of its strong brand.) Supermarket employees aren’t likely to give chase to drug addicts brushing past the checkout with a few bottles of the stuff. Retailers can’t exactly drop the product, which they often have to sell at extremely low margins, because of competition and Tide’s premium wholesale price.

And that, in part, explains its success as an illicit drug currency. The combination of just-in-time stocking, and disappearing inventories (which don’t show up on inventory management systems because of the shoplifting), mean that groceries have to place emergency orders with local wholesalers, not their regular chain suppliers, and some of them, well, are working both over and under the table.  And other retailers, perhaps less scrupulous, are buying “hot Tide” at prices below fair market value, creating competitive challenges for the stores from where the legitimate stuff is sold.

Police and court resources obviously are limited — I mean, yes, the story describes a stake-out of a wholesale operation where the detergent was being moved through in high quantities, but how many cops do you think can be put on the detergent theft beat?

Yet, so far, Tide is coming out 100 per cent squeaky clean in this dirty little story, though it has had its other problems, including a successful petition arguing that Tide had carcinogens in one of its ingredients. Proctor and Gamble gave in on that one.

But there is still a puzzle. Sure, Tide can be sold and fenced with relative ease, but why this detergent and not another one. Here, we cut to the element of branding — the ability of Proctor and Gamble to create a premium name brand out of something that many of us would think of as a commodity. The story has roots in its original inception as a break-through in laundry practices; but goes on to effective marketing that has protected the brand’s integrity over the years (I’ll let you read the New York magazine article for more details on this.) The story concludes:

For its part, Procter & Gamble doesn’t seem overly concerned about the black-market popularity of its product. “It’s unfortunate that people are stealing Tide, and I don’t think it’s appropriate at all, but the one thing it reminds me of is that the value of the brand has stayed consistent,” says Raman, the marketing director. Now the company’s tactics for maintaining the brand’s premium status are evolving. One recent commercial for the detergent shows a young couple watching TV. The boyfriend mentions that his girlfriend wanted him to use Tide with Downey to make his shirts soft. The punch line: She’s fallen asleep on his stomach. “And was she right? The proof is in the snoring,” he says. That promotion, part of a campaign called MyTide, is emblematic of the way Tide’s target demographic has expanded since the brand’s inception. Tide isn’t just for stay-at-home moms anymore. It’s for single guys—and, as other commercials show, for a woman who wants to resurrect her “nasty, vile” old tennis shoes, or the parents of triplets, folding clothes in a crowded bedroom, who consider their kids “such a blessing” but “not financially,” or anyone looking to stretch their dollars. Says Kopelowicz of Saatchi & Saatchi: “Some people, just because they can’t afford Tide all the time, they might think the brand doesn’t understand you. Of course we understand you.”

Fashion trends might be ephemeral, but—if you buy into Tide’s branding efforts—clean clothes, no matter what kind of clothes they are, are essential to your well-being, or even to your sense of self-worth. “It makes you feel prepared, like your priorities are straight,” Kopelowicz says. It just happens that the high demand for Tide that message fuels also sustains criminal enterprises.

We of course might not be able to build and sustain a brand as durable as Proctor and Gamble has with Tide. However, I think we can certainly appreciate the power (and perhaps unintended consequences) of truly effective marketing. Maybe, indeed, we should sprinkle some of this stuff around our showrooms.

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