What does Tide's Loads of Hope program actually do?

Advice on how to make the world better.
Sept. 22 2010 7:12 AM

The Spin Cycle

Tide's Loads of Hope program is one part do-goodery, one part marketing genius.

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Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Dear My Goodness, Walking down the laundry aisle of my supermarket, I noticed a new Tide bottle with the words "Loads of Hope" on it. This is apparently some kind of charity tie-in. What's the deal with it?

—Becky in Marblehead, Mass.

Dear Becky,
As New Orleans sank underwater five years ago and thousands of people lost their homes, a small group of Procter & Gamble managers met and asked themselves what they could do to help. Tide laundry detergent is essentially P&G's flagship product, and they figured they could boost the morale of the hurricane victims and give their product a very good name by getting those people's clothes clean.

The Tide Loads of Hope team went to Louisiana and has been going to hurricanes, floods, and wildfires in the years since to provide clean clothes to displaced people. The team of five to 10 workers arrives in a rolling laundromat, a gigantic orange truck (the color of the original Tide box) carrying 32 washers and dryers. For two or three weeks, the team, wearing bright-orange Tide T-shirts, will wash, dry, and fold the sheets, towels, and clothes of families and aid workers for free. It's got to be a huge relief for displaced people. It's also likely to produce a very pleasant association the next time anyone who's been helped sees a bottle of Tide on the grocery shelf.

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If you purchase the red Tide bottle with a yellow cap and a collage of grateful-looking people on the label, you can help support the program, P&G says. The next step is to activate the gift by entering a code from the yellow cap at Tide's Web site. When you register, $1 is donated by P&G to Loads of Hope. The consumer's donation isn't simply a portion of the purchase price rung up at the register, as it is, for example, with some products slapped with a pink ribbon or a "Help Haiti" decal. Why the extra step? "Because our consumers wanted to give a higher amount, and they wanted a closer relationship with the program," said  Lauren Thaman, a Procter & Gamble spokeswoman.

Whether or not consumers want a closer relationship to the heartwarming clean-clothes venture, certainly Procter & Gamble, one of the world's largest consumer-products companies, fervently wishes consumers to have a close relationship with Tide.

P&G marketing has generated a lot of Facebook and Twitter chatter concerning where the truck is going and how happy people are to see it. But P&G representatives were opaque about specifics. Questions such as "Whose good idea was this?" elicited the corporate answer, "A group." I couldn't even get an answer to the eternal laundry question: How do you avoid losing socks? If the Loads of Hope team has a system, true charity would demand they share it with the world.

Loads of Hope decides where to go in consultation with the Federal Emergency Management Administration. This past May, for example, after record rainfall in Nashville, Tenn. (probably the most under-reported serious disaster of the decade), the mega-truck pulled into a Dollar General parking lot and did 300 wash and dry cycles a day. (The average American family, according to Tide, does 392 loads per year.)

The truck comes with its own water supply and the used water goes into the normal sewage system, except, obviously, in cases of flood. Nashville didn't need more gray water, so a tanker carried it away to somewhere drier.

The free washing idea, minus the truck, has extended to other countries. P&G employees in Pakistan set up a system this summer that washed 10,000 garments a day for a month in response to the Indus River flooding. After the earthquake in January, profits from the sales of $20 Loads of Hope T-shirts went toward rebuilding the laundry rooms at a hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and providing a laundry room at a home for orphans and abandoned children.

Obviously, getting clean is a basic human need and part of picking yourself up after a disaster. Loads of Hope fills a need. The program is also now recognized in the pragmatic and competitive world of marketing strategists as an example of sheer genius in the category of cause-related marketing.

Note that your desire to help others may cost you more at the register. The suggested retail price of the yellow-capped bottle of Tide is $7.99. Yet two supermarkets I visited priced the Loads of Hope bottle at $8.99. Tide Total Care, the same 50-ounce size, cost $6.81 at both markets. The supermarket brand was $3 for the same amount.

P&G spokeswoman Thaman said she didn't know what portion of the Loads of Hope program was covered by consumer donations. It's doubtful that T-shirt sales and $1 from each bottle could cover even half. She said she couldn't estimate how much the Loads of Hope program cost or how much P&G itself paid for. But surely someone must keep track of how much the good deeds cost. P&G's tax attorney could presumably write off a portion of the expense as either charity or marketing. It works as both.

—Constance

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com.

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Constance Casey's "Doing Good" beat for the Newhouse News Service focused on charities, the politics of nonprofits, and finding good solutions to bad problems. She has written on gardening and revolting creatures for Slate.