At various times we’ve used semiotics and ethnography to offer expert consultancy on laundry to P&G, Unilever and many smaller brands. It is a category that is rather unloved by consumers, regarded as somewhat of a chore and short on creative opportunities in contrast to something like home decorating or cooking. An additional problem is that the category can be very technology-driven – some new formula may be developed that does more to preserve the brightness of colours or remove stains – and this is allowed to drive innovation without a lot of correspondence to consumer need. Despite this, when laundry is examined semiotically it is clear that consumers are trying to introduce a more emotional element in a category where brands are not always doing as much as they could to help them out.

Did you know?

  • Laundry is full of fascinating cultural and regional differences. Europeans own fewer clothes and wash them less often, in hotter water. American families often amass great piles of clothes and this is a function of various factors, including cheaper, more disposable clothing and larger houses with more closet space. Additionally, Americans use more stain removers than Europeans and a large part of this is an American tendency to eat on the go, especially in the car, contrasted against a lingering European habit of eating with cutlery at set times or discrete occasions.
  • When people lose control of their housework, laundry may be the first thing to go. Consumers often post pictures on social media of great towers of unwashed or unfolded laundry which may dwarf the person expected to take care of the task. In popular self help regimes which guide consumers in re-establish control over their homes, laundry is often a point of special focus and attention. People are easily overwhelmed by laundry and brands could do more to help them systematise a complex task.
  • Photos posted by consumers of their own homes show them making sometimes valiant attempts to make the utility space or laundry room appealing and cosy, even though most washing machines look like imports from the automotive category. While, especially in developing countries, ownership of a washing machine may be a very proud matter, just like owning a car, there’s an incongruence in many homes between the large, car-like object parked in the kitchen and the cosy narrative that the homeowner has attempted to weave around the machine, with sweet fragrances and homes for orphan socks.

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