Suppliers are finding that it’s no longer enough for household products to be effective and offer value for money. These days, they need to look good, too. Simon Creasey reports

Household products have undergone a significant makeover of late.

Whereas once they were hidden away in the cleaning cupboard or pushed under the sink, today's house-proud consumer wants to buy products they wouldn't be ashamed to leave out on display when guests visit.

Over the past year, a whole host of new products that pack a punch not only cleaning-wise but also aesthetically have also hit the shelves. And keen not to be left behind in the style stakes, existing brands have undergone radical pack redesigns. There's more to come, say experts.

Household product manufacturers can no longer afford to stick a bland-looking product on shelf and hope consumers will find it, says Kieran MacSweeney, sales director at Challs International. This thinking influenced the launch of Challs' bin deodoriser Bin Buddy (see box p46) in June last year. MacSweeney says the sheer amount of choice on offer in the household category means it's absolutely critical that manufacturers create products that not only perform well but that also look great and not only in the home.

"You can have a fantastic product in terms of functionality but there is such a breadth of ranges in categories that unless you have great packaging and design, you will not stand out on a shelf. Nor will you win business," he says.

It's a view shared by Louise Roper, UK marketing manager at laundry detergent manufacturer Method. Roper says Method, which has won awards for its pack design, creates products that look so good that consumers want to display them.

"One of the insights that Method was founded on is that while the home is a place we spend a lot of time in and attach a lot of emotion to, the products traditionally used to care for it were purely functional, creating no emotional attachment," says Roper.

"We continue to work on the products as home care products, rather than simply functional cleaning products, investing in the visual and sensory experience as well as the efficacy and development of new products."

But what about functionality? Isn't there a danger that the switch to good-looking packs will see the usability of the product suffer? Not necessarily, according to Vileda brand manager Lindsey Taylor. She believes that creating an attractive product doesn't mean that you have to compromise on efficiency or quality.

"We are just about to launch our Vileda sub-brand Style, a range of products that will be aimed at a younger consumer where we know that appearance is just as important as function," she says. "This patterned range still focuses on high-quality, long-lasting materials and efficient use."

Any product that does fall into the form-over-function trap will quickly get found out, cautions Roper. "For a product to sell well there is a minimum barrier for efficiency if something doesn't work it won't last for long. Consumers aren't stupid and they are savvy on value: products that don't work won't get re-bought."

Not that that's been a problem for the current crop of cleaning products, judging by sales figures. The laundry market has grown 7.3% in value to £1.4bn, and 3.4% in volume [Kantar Worldpanel 52w/e 28 November], boosted by the trend for more expensive, investment clothing (which requires more expensive products) Volume and value growth can also be seen in the auto dishwash, aircare and surface cleaner categories.

Toilet tissue value sales were up 1.2% to £1.1bn, with volume up 2.1% to three billion rolls and facial tissue value sales were up 0.3% to £197.2m with volume up 0.6% to 286m boxes, over the same period [Nielsen]. The only categories showing signs of decline were toilet care and bleach products, down 1.6% in value but up 1.8% in volume, kitchen towels, up 2.6% in value but down 5.7% in volume, and hand dishwash sales, which were up 0.9% in value to £193.7m, but down 0.2% in volume.

Much of the category's growth has been driven by a strong performance by brand leaders such as Fairy, Domestos, Flash and Persil, in addition to innovative new products, including the likes of Bin Buddy and Ariel's first foray into stain removers.

That's not to say that it's all been plain sailing. A number of major brands have seen sales slump Air Wick, Dettol and Toilet Duck among them but perhaps the most dramatic fall has been by Ecover (see right), with a 20.5% fall in value sales of its auto dishwash product and an 11.4% drop to £6.0m of its hand dishwash, prompted by cost-cutting shoppers opting for cheaper alternatives.

Despite the eco brand's 'annus horribilis' there is still a thirst for green products and environmental concerns remain high on the consumer agenda, believes Paul Lettice, head of trade communications at Procter & Gamble. However, they have to deliver performance too.

"Asked if they would change their behaviour to limit their environmental impact, two thirds of the UK population say yes," he explains. "But what we've also found is that they certainly won't make do with any compromise on performance."

The company's innovation across the household portfolio has focused on offering products that deliver on both these fronts, to provide a key point of differentiation from rival offerings, says Lettice.

"When making a brand versus brand decision, one of the elements that consumers are more frequently considering after evaluating performance factors is sustainability. They look to the brands they know to help provide them with recycling and energy-saving solutions. The leading brands in the market need to take responsibility and provide those solutions."

Over the past few years, P&G has pushed through green improvements on brands such as Ariel, Lenor, Fairy and Flash, with a focus on reducing packaging and making the products work just as effectively at lower temperatures.

Vileda is similarly striving to address the concerns of green consumers, expanding its Naturals range last year to include floor care products. Taylor believes it is important to offer consumers the option to buy environmentally friendly products right across the company's product range. "We have discovered that a product's green credentials can be an essential element of whether it is a success or not," she says.

Having a limited impact on the environment is just one part of the equation. A number of brands and indeed companies have launched high-profile green campaigns or even full-on environmental strategies. Last year, Velvet launched its Campaign For Trees with the promise that for every tree it uses, three more are grown.

"It's reassuring to see our focus on Velvet's environmental credentials resonating with consumers," says Richard Nall, marketing director at brand owner SCA.

Unilever, meanwhile, continues to work towards its Cleaner Planet Plan, unveiled in 2009 with the aim of reducing pack sizes, and the introduction of concentrated liquids in three of its laundry brands Persil, Surf and Comfort. The overall aim is to halve the environmental impact of the company's products by 2020.

Reckitt Benckiser has set itself a similar goal of reducing its total carbon footprint by 20% by 2020 and has achieved an 11% reduction since the scheme launched in 2007. According to CEO Bart Becht, this is more than just green marketing.

"Focusing on climate change is right for our business, right for our industry and right for society. Our Carbon20 programme set us ambitious targets and I'm pleased that Reckitt Benckiser is on track to exceed them."

Reducing the impact of manufacturing is one thing. The other key challenge for manufacturers of eco-friendly products is combining an innovative product formulation with a retail price acceptable to eco-conscious consumers, according to Faith in Nature (formerly known as Clear Spring) founder Rivka Rose.

"From our perspective we've worked hard to provide a balance between eco products that offer high performance and are affordable, yet offer a number of other benefits," says Rose. "For example, benefits such as natural formulations made from raw materials that are both biodegradeable and sustainable and the inclusion of aromatherapy oils rather than artificial fragrances. The current range demonstrates that sophistication does not always have to mean high pricing."

Fragrance cost hikes
Faith in Nature is not the only producer investing in fragrance. But it may be less of a feature over the next year, as a string of natural catastrophes is set to push up prices by 400%. Household and laundry products will suffer and, according to British Fragrance Association director Lisa Hipgrave, "there is no end in sight to the problem".

And in the meantime, manufacturers will be hoping to justify any forced price rises with NPD that offers genuine added value. Much of this NPD will continue to tap into the category's key trends of pack formats that look great, have eco-benefits attached to them and also offer a high level of performance.

In November, Velvet launched an eye-catching range of new limited-edition winter boxes for its facial tissues.

"Our research has shown that limited-edition packs generate lots of interest among consumers, especially with facial tissues, where the packaging remains on display for the life of the product," explains Traci Baxter, senior brand manager for Velvet. "In a market driven by seasonality we were confident that our winter tissues would encourage trial." She claims the strategy worked, with sales of Velvet enjoying an uplift after the launch of the new packs.

CeDo also placed emphasis on the aesthetics when it redesigned and relaunched its Kitchen Compost Caddy range with a new-look caddy. The company ticked the all-important green box by reducing the thickness of its 100% compostable caddy liners from 18 to 14 microns.

"In terms of user-friendly and affordable compostable films, this is a major processing success for us," says CeDo chief executive David Pearce. "And it's a real bonus that we have also managed to effectively reduce the cost of the compostable liners by half. What's good for the environment should also be increasingly good for the consumer pocket, and this newly designed caddy will hopefully help meet the upsurge in the need to get involved with home composting."

Continuing the easy-on-the-eye theme, Baco launched a fuchsia pink EasyCut refillable cling film dispenser last spring to "inject some fun and colour into a drab sector", according to managing director Adrian Brown. He hopes the improved, refillable dispenser will help reduce waste and make it easier for consumers to store leftovers. "These are not deep green values, but environmental common sense," he says.

The environment may be important to consumers, but it is not the main factor governing their choice of household product. Convenience remains key. Indeed, Vileda says its NPD strategy is entirely focused on making the consumer's life easier.To that end, the company launched a new range of scourers and floor care products in March. "The improved technologies mean more efficient products that will do the job quicker, so people will spend less time cleaning," says Taylor.

It also means less money on looking after the expensive white goods and furniture in their house, says Laura Unsworth, marketing development manager at Dr Beckmann, the washing machine cleaner and carpet stain remover manufacturer. "In this economic climate consumers are demanding products that not only provide value for money but also produce more efficient results and better performance to prolong the lives of expensive goods in the home," she says.

Dr Beckmann will bring a number of new products to market in 2011.

This desire for products that offer better levels of performance could be one explanation why own label has performed so poorly over the last 12 months, believes Challs' Kieran MacSweeney. "Consumers don't want to do jobs twice they want to do it right the first time and they want products that are quick and easy to use while giving value for money. That's why we've seen the move towards tried-and-trusted brands."

This is borne out by sales figures for own-label household products last year with almost all categories experiencing declining sales. Only surface cleaner sales showed value sales growth, of 2.6%, but even that was less than the 3.2% growth that the overall category posted [Nielsen 52 w/e 2 October].

On the flipside, premium branded products performed strongly despite consumers tightening the purse strings. Joanne Mathers, brand marketing controller for object hygiene at SCA, believes the difficult financial situation has polarised the market.Although some are prepared to pay more, "there are consumers who've been looking to tighten their belts and make savings where they can at the sacrifice of quality," she says.

Mathers adds, however, that other consumers still shop as they did pre-recession, buying familiar, trusted brands.

Andrex looked to appeal to the latter with the relaunch of a number of its premium brands over the past 12 months. In October, Andrex Aloe Vera was relaunched as Andrex Skin Kind and the following month Andrex Quilts was rebranded Andrex Gorgeous Comfort.

These changes were made as part of the company's new communications platform, 'It's the little things', launched in November 2010.

Kleenex has also been busy building its premium portfolio with the launch of Pockets the paper products launch of the year in The Grocer's Top Products survey 2010. The launch, targeted at men, included the development of an ultra slimline pack designed to fit neatly and discreetly in men's pockets.

In October, it further strengthened its presence in the tissue category with the launch of the premium Kleenex Balsam Fresh, Kleenex Balsam tissues infused with menthol.

"This unique combination offers a double benefit to consumers the protective balm with calendula that is already present in Kleenex Balsam tissues helps to soothe your nose, while the new menthol infusion helps ease breathing, making them ideal for the cold and flu season," says Vicky Morgan, brand manager of Kleenex UK.

Further premium products are likely to hit the shelves over coming months, complete with bold packaging to create that all-important stand-out-from-the-crowd factor. But those brands that opt for form over function will be doomed to failure, cautions Matt Close, Unilever's home and personal care vice president of marketing.

"Product performance is the key to success as consumers will only purchase brands they can trust and rely on. Staying at the forefront of technology and investing in brands will ensure category growth," he says.

Consumers shopping for household products now have more product choice than ever. The challenge for manufacturers in a tough economic climate will be to deliver the right product at the right price in the right packaging. And above all, one that delivers the right performance.

It's not too much to ask, is it?

Focus On Household