The Dishwasher Wars

When phosphates were banned, the detergent category got vicious.

Until three seconds ago, I couldn’t have told you what brand of dishwasher detergent I use. I just now popped into my kitchen to take a peek and it turns out I’ve been exfoliating my plates and bowls with “Cascade Complete.” Why did I choose this brand instead of the others on the supermarket shelf? Not quite sure. But I have a strong suspicion that my mother uses Cascade and did throughout my childhood. It’s possible that the packaging’s red and green color scheme conjured vague, warm feelings of maternal dishwashing competence.

These sorts of brand associations die hard. Particularly with products, such as dishwasher suds, that we’re not inclined to spend much time thinking about. “This is a sleepy category,” says John Paquin of the advertising firm Euro RSCG. Paquin handles the account for the Finish dish detergent brand—a competitor to Cascade. “People shop on autopilot. You buy what your mother bought, what your grandmother bought. You put it in the dishwasher, you shut the door, it’s out of your mind.”

Until it stops working right. The category got a lot less sleepy in July 2010 when, for environmental reasons, several states banned the use of phosphates as an ingredient in dishwasher detergent. (Phosphates can cause algae overgrowth in lakes and ponds, disrupting the ecosystem.) In response to the ban, big detergent manufacturers removed phosphates from all of their U.S. products. Most consumers had no clue about the new anti-phosphate legislation. But they suddenly noticed that their dishes weren’t nearly as clean.

First, they’d blame their machines. Then they’d blame themselves—wondering if they’d failed to pre-scrub those crusty lasagna tins with adequate penitence. Finally, they’d realize that their detergent had been tweaked. It turns out those phosphates were a key cleaning ingredient, particularly in homes with “hard” water that’s heavy in calcium deposits.

Here lay opportunity. There’d been a disruption in the category. People who’d never given any thought to their dish detergent allegiances were now obliged to sit up and pay renewed attention. For decades, Cascade has been entrenched as America’s best-selling dish detergent. At last, Finish—the longtime No. 2, a classic “challenger brand”—had found its moment to pounce.

Shortly after the phosphates ban took effect, product reviewer Consumer Reports ran a test of the revamped detergent formulas. It found that among these newly de-phosphated products, Finish Quantum was the most effective on the market—ahead of every one of Cascade’s entrants. Great news for Finish, yes? But here’s where it gets controversial. As the New York Times noted in a recent article pegged to the 75th birthday of Consumer Reports, the nonprofit “keeps its name away from use as an endorsement. Merchants whose products earn a spot on the recommended list would like nothing better than to mention it, but Consumer Reports forbids them from doing so.”

Defying this long-standing rule, Finish immediately began running a TV ad touting its top rating from “a leading consumer publication.” The Finish website still uses that phrase on its front page. Meanwhile, Consumer Reports is none too happy about the transgression. It has pleaded with Finish to stop, but to no avail.

You may wonder why a brand should be prevented from mentioning its Consumer Reports ranking. Isn’t this useful information for consumers? As a letter from Consumer Reports’ president in this November’s issue of the magazine complains, violators like Finish “cherry-pick snippets of our reports.” For example, one Finish ad mentions the top rating for Finish Quantum but includes a picture of a different Finish product line that finished way back at eighth in the same study. And even though Consumer Reports ran an updated test this fall showing that Finish Quantum actually leaves a film on dishes, Finish has continued to trumpet that great review it got back in 2010. (In case you’re curious, Consumer Reports now reports that Cascade Complete All in 1 Action-Pacs clean “very well and didn’t leave a white film or discolor aluminum.”)

When I asked about these shenanigans, Finish marketing director Gregory Chabidon repeatedly told me—with what I deemed to be willful obtuseness—that “company policy is to never quote Consumer Reports by name.” Apparently, he feels that using a thinly veiled descriptor is totally kosher. It’s certainly in his interest to feel that way: Finish has closed the market share gap with Cascade by 10 percent since these ads started running.

Personally, I see no problem with brands bragging about their Consumer Reports grades—so long as that bragging is not misleading. And I can’t help but respect Finish for its aggressive, rule-bending attitude. But perhaps I just have a soft spot for the plight of the challenger brand. I like it when underdogs, spurred by desperation, make bold moves. Sometimes they embrace their beta status—as the car rental brand Avis did in 1962, claiming that precisely because it was No. 2 to Hertz it was motivated to “try harder.” Sometimes challengers rush to market with a new product to undercut the carefully choreographed rollout of a leading brand’s offering. And sometimes they violate unspoken industry etiquette and then play cheesy games with a reporter when they’re called on it.

“Challenger brands have an obligation to be more provocative,” says Paquin. “The leading brand will assert that it’s on top in sales as a result of its superior product. The classic challenger campaign tries to make people rethink their choice and wonder if they could be doing better.”

Interestingly, as Ad Age has argued, there’s one arena where you never want to be a challenger brand. A national politician is expected to be alpha all the way. Which might explain Newt Gingrich’s recent TV ad. Gingrich is an outsider, a bomb-thrower, by nature. But the instant he began to rise to the top in the polls he put out a snoozy ad with soothing music, in which he speaks in calm tones under muted lighting. It was a far cry from challenger brand Herman Cain’s legendarily unsettling video. Newt’s ad felt like it came straight from a category leader. And now that his Iowa poll numbers are slipping again, we might see Mitt Romney or Ron Paul play Cascade to Newt’s Finish.