Liquid Gold

Back in the early nineties, I switched agencies and found myself conceiving PR/media strategies for various products of the Colgate-Palmolive company – from toothpaste to laundry detergent. The agency change also necessitated that I alter my personal CPG usage habits from Pepsi to Coke, P&G’s Crest brand to Colgate, and RJR’s Winston Lights to Philip Morris USA’s Marlboro Lights (or Merit) brand, among others. (Smoking was more accepted back then…especially with PM as a client.)

In my work for Colgate’s laundry products, it was validated that P&G’s Tide brand is the industry’s gold standard when it comes to getting things clean. In fact, at the previous agency, I worked on Tide’s campaign to find the “Dirtiest Kid in America,” and the promotion that put a few real diamonds in P&G’s Spic N Span boxes to celebrate the brand’s diamond anniversary. Most had cubic zirconia, but when shoppers started ripping open boxes onto supermarket floors, the widely covered promotion ended.

Today, a piece in New York Magazine reveals just how valuable this “liquid gold” Tide has become. The magazine reported:

“At upwards of $20 per 150-ounce bottle, Tide costs about 50 percent more than the average liquid detergent yet outsells Gain, the closest competitor by market share (and another P&G product), by more than two to one. According to research firm SymphonyIRI Group, Tide is now a $1.7 billion business representing more than 30 percent of the liquid-detergent market.”

Yet the folks in Cincinnati, who’ve seen some really bizarre things in their business lives — including P&G’s trademark being equated to satan — were probably not prepared for this. Apparently, gangs are stealing the distinctive orange plastic bottles from grocery store shelves and pawning them on the street for drugs:

“It turned out the detergent wasn’t ­being used as an ingredient in some new recipe for getting high, but instead to buy drugs themselves. Tide bottles have become ad hoc street currency, with a 150-ounce bottle going for either $5 cash or $10 worth of weed or crack cocaine. On certain corners, the detergent has earned a new nickname: “Liquid gold.” The Tide people would never sanction that tag line, of course. But this unlikely black market would not have formed if they weren’t so good at pushing their product.”

Putting on my PR hat, this clearly is a most unPRecedented conundrum. It’s one thing to have a product tampered with — like the syringes found in bottles of Pepsi or urine-tainted Gatorade back when the sports drink was available in only one color… I mean flavor.  I’m not so certain how I would advise P&G in this instance, other than to leave well enough alone.

If it’s any consolation, the company’s vaunted laundry detergent is being used as it was envisioned: to clean clothes, mostly. No bath salt off-label problem here.