Bleach benefits from a bumper year

Bleach, one of the most basic and mature home care sectors, experienced a marked revival in fortunes in 2009.

At a global level, the sector registered 5% value growth, the second strongest in home care and almost double the growth rate of the previous year.

At a country level, while Latin American countries – where many lower-income consumers continue to favour bleach as a basic cleaning product – continue to figure prominently on the list of markets registering high levels of value growth, bleach also registered a strong performance in the more developed markets of the UK and Hong Kong.

Swine flu sends sales soaring

In the UK, the value growth of bleach leapt from 2% in 2008 to 10% in 2009, gains that are even stronger when compared to the overall home care market’s growth of 1%. Similarly, in Hong Kong the sector rose from a value decline of 3% in 2008 to a 15% increase in 2009.

In the main, this marked turnaround in fortunes can be attributed to the global swine flu outbreak, which pushed consumer health concerns to the fore. A similar spike in value growth in the UK was seen in 2005 when the sector registered just over a 5% increase, driven by the outbreak of the bird flu virus. Continuous media coverage of the swine flu outbreak, its spread and the resulting death toll, meant that maintaining a clean and germ-free home became a focal point for many consumers looking to protect themselves and their families. Bleach’s long-standing reputation as an efficient, if perhaps harsh, disinfectant meant that when germ-killing became the number one consumer concern the product fell back into favour.

Government campaign lends manufacturers a hand

In the UK, the government’s campaign to stop the spread of swine flu, with the slogan “Catch it, bin it, kill it”, along with continuous media coverage, created a fear factor that worked in manufacturers’ favour, driving sales of bleach as well as anti-bacterial products.

Unilever’s Domestos, the UK’s leading branded bleach in a sector dominated by private label products, was also proactive in addressing the swine flu outbreak. Unilever, which had re-launched Domestos early in 2009, was quick to integrate advice from the government campaign in its own advertising, focusing on the germ-killing properties of its products in its advertisements – as did Clorox in the US and Latin America.

The company took out newspaper advertisements promoting its spray as a product that helps to protect against swine flu, while the Domestos website launched a section on swine flu and how consumers could protect themselves and their families, including which of the brand’s products should be used to eradicate the virus in ‘germ hotspots’ in the home. While the company would not want to be seen as benefiting from a crisis, savvy appropriation and use of government-issued advice gave weight to the company’s claims of its products’ suitability for tackling the swine flu threat.

Back to basics in the credit crunch

While the swine flu outbreak was no doubt the largest contributory factor to the strong performance of bleach in 2009, the economic crisis also had a positive impact on the sector. The product can be used for many cleaning purposes and its price is considerably lower compared to bathroom and toilet cleaners, as well as other surface care products, and as a result bleach likely regained favour with some consumers who were forced reign in their spending.

Bleach boom is short-lived

While bleach had a bumper year in 2009, without these exceptional circumstances value growth in the sector is predicted to slow once more. Average annual value growth of 1% is predicted to 2014 in the UK, with global growth predicted to fall just below that.

Although the product does retain some potential in less developed markets, Turkey for example, where bleach will continue to see growth because of its reputation as an indispensable cleaning tool that is practical, cheap and efficient, forecast growth rates show that the product is, in developed markets in particular, largely considered to be outdated and old-fashioned.

Innovations leave bleach trailing

The constant introduction of more sophisticated multi-purpose surface care products is putting increasing pressure on traditional task-specific cleaning products and bleach in particular. Younger, and generally more affluent, consumers now opt for multi-purpose cleaners, a multitude of which now also offer germ-killing properties. While bleach is suffering from this increased competition, exacerbating the problem is the fact that the sector itself sees little in terms of innovation and therefore offers little to attract new consumers away from rival surface care products.

In addition, rising environmental awareness is also hampering growth of the sector due to concerns about the damage to the environment caused by chlorine bleach in particular. However, this potential stumbling block may also point to the future of the sector, with manufacturers such as Ecover and Clorox now producing chlorine-free oxygen-based bleaches.

This step up in environmental credentials could, if marketed correctly, perhaps serve to reinvigorate interest in the sector. While any move of this nature would require significant investment on the behalf of manufacturers, if the product were promoted as a traditional and efficient multi-purpose cleaning solution that has stood the test of time and just become ‘greener’, consumers would possibly sit up and take note.

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