Last Updated: December 5, 2020

A school bus driving through a picturesque town stops to pick up students. The camera pans back to show a boy running across a yard, shouting for the bus to wait. He splashes through wet ground, and when he climbs onto the bus, he steps on his light gray sweatshirt and leaves a nasty, muddy stain. The image zooms in on the stain, and a voiceover informs the viewer that Wisk laundry detergent breaks down stains scientifically. As a smiling mother views a clean shirt, the voice remarks: “Fight stains with science.”

This commercial for Wisk stain spectrum appeals to consumers by using proven expert knowledge to reassure viewers that when they use Wisk, their laundry will be clean—no matter how tough the stain is. All brands of laundry detergent have the same goal of cleaning clothes, so marketers in this industry must have a strong knowledge of consumer psychology and motivation in order to win consumers to their brand.

The Psychology of Marketing Laundry Detergent

Brand and CommercialExplanation of AdvertisementPsychological Response Elicited
Method “say no to jugs”A man with a laundry detergent bottle on his head starts singing about the problems with jugs. He claims that big jugs aren’t necessary while singing and narrating as two lab technicians wash uniforms for an entire marching band. The uniforms are spotless and perfect and they only used four squirts of detergent.Excitement: When the man in the commercial puts on his pair of Levi’s jeans, he is instantly transported to a bustling environment full of possibility. The city setting makes the man’s casual dress seem appropriate and his nonchalant response to his sudden change of scenery makes him look cool. The overarching suggestion is that Levi’s jeans are what hip, city-dwelling men wear and that the jeans are an essential part of a man’s busy life.
Gain “Meet Ted”An announcer invites viewers to “meet Ted,” an ordinary-looking man who is having a rough week as he repeatedly spills things and stains his shirts with mustard, red wine, and motor oil. Then, Ted is shown in the laundry room pulling out spotless shirts from the dryer, thanks to the power of Gain.Proven Results and Humor: Through this commercial, Gain is proven to be effective at removing tough stains, which is the primary reason consumers buy laundry detergent. This advertisement also uses humor through an unexpected twist at the end to make the spot memorable.
P&G (Tide) “To Their Moms, They’ll Always Be Kids”Children in Olympic uniforms are shown performing a variety of Olympic sports, with a background of sweeping and dramatic music. The camera focuses on one mother watching with awe from the crowd. A message appears on the screen—“To their Moms, they’ll always be kids”—and then a series of logos flash by, beginning with Tide laundry detergent. Finally, a female voice says, “P&G. Proud sponsor of moms.”Emotional Connection: This commercial appeals to the sentimental side of mothers, who are typically responsible for the household laundry. The product images at the end are an attempt to connect the brand with powerful emotions. The marketers hope the commercial will be recalled the next time the viewer sees Tide in a store.

Marketing to the masses: How laundry detergent gets sold

Laundry detergent is a common product that is purchased regularly by nearly every household in America. Marketers in this industry face several challenges, but in general, the toughest challenge is product differentiation.

Target demographics are one way that marketers differentiate. Traditionally, the task of doing laundry has fallen to women. The majority of today’s laundry detergent advertising is aimed at wives and mothers. However, some companies turn this idea around and use the psychology of unexpected direction by marketing to men. One example is Clorox, with a television spot that is part of their “Bleachable Moments” campaign. This commercial shows two fathers at a park with their respective babies when a laundry disaster occurs. The commercial implies that dads do laundry, too—and they’ll do it best with Clorox.

Top 5 Best-selling Detergent Brands

  • Tide: $1.2 billion
  • Arm & Hammer: $248 million
  • Gain: $239 million
  • All: $227 million
  • Purex: $145 million

Source: Laundry detergent (liquid). (2011, April). Grocery Headquarters

Laundry detergent marketers also differentiate with an appeal to the consumer’s ego through personalization. A study from finds that marketers who brand laundry detergents as “made just for me” are more likely to capture consumer attention. This type of personal appeal is apparent in the marketing for an increasing number of niche detergent products, such as alternative detergent forms like tablets and teabags, eco-friendly detergent, and allergen-free products.

In addition to differentiation, marketers use the herd mentality of social media to boost the popularity of their company’s laundry detergent brand. For example, the makers of Gain laundry detergent launched a “sniff contest” via Facebook, inviting consumers to purchase a bottle of Gain, smell the scent, and share a brief story or video about their sniffing experience. The campaign drew more than 300,000 stories, videos, and new Facebook fans. Following the success, the company dubbed their fans “Gainiacs” and continues to engage them through social media.

Whether they use differentiation or social marketing strategies, laundry detergent marketers are attempting to win consumer brand loyalty. Detergent is a frequently replenished household supply, and gaining loyal customers is the best strategy for success in this industry.

Going Green: It's for Laundry Detergent, Too

Like many synthetic products, laundry detergent poses a risk to the environment. The phosphates used in most detergents are a significant source of pollution in United States waterways, particularly the Great Lakes. Growing consumer concerns about environmental friendliness led detergent manufacturers to investigate safer alternatives, and the first “green” laundry detergent brands entered the market in the early 2000’s.

Why do consumers buy environmentally friendly products? Green psychology is driven by incentive, which can be either positive or negative depending on the consumer’s personal demographics. For example, some people enjoy the ego boost that comes with being perceived as environmental champions, while others are motivated to “go green” through fear of being stigmatized when their peer groups engage in eco-friendly practices.

Companies like Method, Seventh Generation, and Restore are designed specifically to cater to the environmentally conscious demographic. Other green detergents are alternate lines from established companies, such as Clorox GreenWorks. This commercial uses the brand recognition of Clorox to instill trust in consumers, while also appealing to environmental responsibility.

The psychology-marketing connection

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Marketing and psychology require a similar understanding of the mental processes and behaviors that motivate groups of people. Marketers strive to learn about the underlying reasons why consumers buy certain products, and then create campaigns that appeal to those reasons. To learn more about the link between marketing and psychology, click here.

Careers related to marketing laundry detergent

Product Manager

A product manager coordinates all of the marketing efforts for a particular product. Typically in charge of a sales team, these professionals keep track of product data and inventory labels. In addition, their marketing duties include developing market research and preparing product forecasts, which rely on a strong knowledge of consumer behaviors. Learn more about Product Managers.

Packaging Specialist

The job of a packaging specialist, or packaging designer, is to create an efficient and attractive product package that will draw the attention of consumers. Packaging specialists consider ease of use, durability, and exterior design when creating packaging. These professionals have a solid understanding of the psychology behind visual impact, including the effect of color and imagery on consumer perceptions. Learn more about Packaging Specialists.

Evolution of Laundry Detergent: A Brief History

  • 1916: Germany develops the first synthetic detergent when World War II causes a shortage of soap-making fats
  • 1930s: The United States begins producing synthetic detergents
  • 1940s: Phosphate compounds are added to detergents, which greatly improves cleansing performance
  • 1950s: Liquid laundry detergents, fabric softeners, and detergents with bleach are developed and marketed
  • 1953: Sales of laundry detergent in the U.S. exceed soap sales
  • 1960s: Pre-wash stain removers and laundry powders with enzymes are introduced
  • 1970s: Fabric softener is pre-combined with laundry detergent
  • 1980s: Cold-water and concentrated laundry detergents are developed and sold
  • 1990s: Super-concentrated liquids and powders are introduced
  • 2000s: Dissolvable detergent packets and eco-friendly detergents are added to the market

Source: Timeline: A History of Soaps and Detergents, NBC Learn Archives

An unusual approach to laundry detergent marketing

With eerie strains of music pulsing in the background, a large man wearing overalls and a leather mask drags a dirty sack through the woods. His destination is a torture rack, where he proceeds to pin and stretch a helpless…shirt.

It’s not a trailer for a bizarre horror movie. Instead, it’s a commercial for Woolite laundry detergent, directed by iconic metal musician-turned-filmmaker Rob Zombie. The spot doesn’t have a voiceover—just spooky lighting and jittery jump cuts to text. The words STRETCH, SHRINK, and FADE appear between the torturer’s nefarious crimes against clothing, and the commercial warns, “Don’t let them torture your clothes.”

The only spoken words are during the last few seconds, where an image of two Woolite detergent bottles on a washing machine are shown, and a female voice whispers, “Save them.” The spot ends with an appeal to “End the torture” and invites viewers to visit Woolite’s Facebook page.

Deemed too scary for television, the commercial aired in theaters and on Woolite’s Facebook page, where it earned the company thousands of “likes” and spread virally across the Internet. It succeeded in reaching a whole new demographic of laundry detergent users.