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Tide's marketing campaign saw laundry detergent sales soar: 'The most virtuous message is not always the most impactful one'

By switching from hot water washes to cold water washes, consumers use 90% less energy, which equates to over $150 in savings a year, plus better clothing durability.

By switching from hot water washes to cold water washes, consumers use 90% less energy, which equates to over $150 in savings a year, plus better clothing durability.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Washing all your laundry in cold water can save you over $150 a year — and Tide wants to make sure shoppers know it.

That's because their star-studded "cold water wash" marketing campaign is helping them sell more laundry detergent while achieving their sustainability goals at the same time.

Tide's multiyear initiative has contributed to growth for the brand and pollution reduction. For example, just one campaign, the 2023 Cold Callers campaign, resulted in a 39% lift in sales for the brand. 

Overall, Tide says the data gathered shows increased laundry loads washed in cold water to 57% in 2023 from 48% in 2020, avoiding nearly 4 million tons of CO2 emissions, or the equivalent of taking 850,000 gas-powered vehicles off the road for one year. 

So how did they achieve the holy grail for marketing sustainability — increasing revenue while doing something positive for the planet? And how did they succeed in tackling that perennial problem of crossing the sustainability intention/action gap? 

The Cool Down spoke to the team at Tide to unpack their playbook. Here's what we learned.

💸 The most effective messages focused on helping consumers save money, not convincing them to save the planet

Tide ran several campaigns focused on different value propositions to make the switch, but the money-saving proposition was the most effective. 

By switching from hot water washes to cold water washes, consumers use 90% less energy, which equates to over $150 in savings a year, plus better clothing durability.

While their "Cold Callers" ad series featuring Ice-T and Stone Cold Steve Austin was star-studded, their Cold Hard Savings ad ran during a period of high inflation, featured unknown talent, and provided a straightforward message focused on "save money with Tide." 

"It proved that the most virtuous message is not always the most impactful one, and we're looking for more ways to convince consumers to make the switch using the 'what's in it for me' approach," Alex Perez, Senior Brand Director North America Laundry, North America Fabric Care, Procter & Gamble told The Cool Down. 

"Just because sustainability is the desired outcome, it shouldn't always be your marketing message," said Freya Williams, author of "Green Giants: How Smart Companies Turn Sustainability into Billion-Dollar Businesses and senior advisor to TCD. "Focus on changing behavior — and the sustainability will follow." 

🤝 Sometimes the best approach may not be to go it alone, but to go it together

Tide assembled an Avengers-style team of consumer brand giants, partnering with GE Appliances and HanesBrands to impact multiple aspects of the laundry ecosystem and reach mainstream America at scale. 

"We learned that a large part of the cold water decision happens at the washing machine," Perez told us.

With a new "eco-cold" function as the default laundry setting, GE Appliances' Michael Mattingly, executive director of product management, told the audience at the Sustainable Brands Conference last October that they saw a 7% reduction in hot loads run on their machines over the course of the campaign — from 17% of loads running on hot to 10%.

P&G is also working with GE Appliances on washing machines designed for cold water washing. 

"Not only can users set cold water wash as a default on a new washing machine model for ease-of-use, but the washer is also designed to optimize wash performance in cold water," Perez told us. "The new model increases the agitation time, providing better circulation and turnover of clothes, to accommodate the lower temperature of the water. It also increases the spin time so less energy is needed for drying."

Seeking to engage people at the moment they were doing laundry, they enlisted their partners at HanesBrands to educate consumers by putting "wash in cold water" labels on packages of white T-shirts and clothes. 

"Big problems can't be tackled alone," said Christopher Fox, the chief sustainability officer at HanesBrands. "We could have each individually gotten at this and made some effective change, but by coming together, it's a chance for it to be truly successful. … It's going to take doing things at scale in this space that are going to make a difference."

The initiative fits into a wider set of ambitions to do "a load of good" that includes intentions to make the company's manufacturing processes and packaging materials more sustainable.

Tide wasn't ready to share details on any plans to continue expanding on sustainability in its product line, but Perez said the company is "always innovating our products to deliver on both performance and sustainability, and we look forward to announcing new updates in the near future."

💡Empower consumers to be part of the solution by removing barriers to participation

Fox said he believes, beyond the practical benefits, that consumers appreciate the opportunity to make an impact.

"I think there's a real strong desire to be actively involved in these issues versus just listening passively to what a company they're buying from is doing," he said. "It's an opportunity to make a difference by changing behavior in an amazing way." 

In this case, individual actions can have a massive impact. Americans do over 30 billion loads of laundry a year — and when they launched their cold water campaign in 2021, only about 50% of those loads were done with cold water, according to Todd Cline, senior director of sustainability for Procter & Gamble.

By getting 75% of loads to be cold water washes, he said, they estimated they could avoid 27 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, helping them achieve their goal of net-zero emissions by 2040.

Playing up those practical benefits for the consumer created a much larger sustainability impact than a message that focused on making the switch for the planet.

"Sustainability is not a nice-to-have but a need-to-have. Our planet and our consumers demand it, and our business continues to see success as we evolve into more sustainable solutions," Perez told The Cool Down. "However, performance and sustainability are inextricably linked. We must find ways to make it easy for consumers to turn to sustainability without sacrificing what's important to them."

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