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Subscription suds: can a detergent-by-post model challenge the big brands?

Paula Quazi is discussing detergent. The former vice-president of marketing for Unilever Europe, claims there hasn’t been the innovation or product development you would expect for a sector of this size (the laundry detergent market is worth £1.7bn in the UK), and accuses brands of just “repackaging up the existing offering in a slightly more jazzy way.

“The trend is now to separate out all the components in a detergent capsule, add colour to the separate parts and put them in a separate chamber of a capsule. The product is exactly the same but now it looks different so they can claim it’s an innovation.”

However she has reason to be critical. Earlier this year, Quazi and her business partner, Nick Green (also ex-Unilever) launched their own detergent, Smol, to challenge the likes of Ariel, Persil and Fairy.

They were inspired by the model of the Dollar Shave Club in the US, which sells razors and other grooming products via a subscription service. Smol’s detergent capsules are delivered directly to customers’ home by Royal Mail, in packaging designed to fit through a letter box. It is offering subscribers a starter pack, then additional deliveries for a fixed price.

The laundry sector isn’t an easy one to break into, says Quazi. It’s dominated by three big players, Unilever, Procter & Gamble and RB, and the major brands rely heavily on their relationship with the retailers and high street. They are therefore hoping their model of selling directly to the consumer, and bypassing retailers, is a way in.

The aim is also to meet the consumer demand for convenience. “The dominant players haven’t been thinking about consumers for years they’ve been too busy fighting one another for share,” says Quazi. “People’s lives are so busy that they don’t want to have to think about remembering to buy washing detergent.”



Paula Quazi and Nick Green, founders of Smol

To say there hasn’t been any innovation in the sector, however, isn’t entirely true. The Ecoegg Laundry Egg lasts for over 50 washes before you need to replace the eco-friendly cleaning pellets inside it. Meanwhile Laundrapp, which collects and drops off laundry and dry cleaning, has experienced rapid growth since launching in 2014. “Laundrapp seems to be a nice idea for people who can afford serviced laundry offers. However, we believe most people will continue washing their laundry at home,” says Quazi.

As both Quazi and Green had worked in the laundry market sector, they had a good idea how the marketing and branding worked and Quazi’s chemistry degree helped when it came to deciphering the right chemical formulations to use. Laundry detergents are, says Quazi, complex products to create, involving high end product development, skilled scientists and costly manufacturing processes.

They spent almost three years developing Smol and had some sleepless nights along the way. Quazi says: “Both Nick and I are very entrepreneurial but it took us two and a half years to get the product right before we launched, so it was a bit of a rollercoaster.”

They poured all their savings and resources into developing the product. “Smol was and is a full-time job for both of us, in the early days we took the decision to use our savings to get the brand off the ground. We worked in a lab with support from very skilled scientists,” says Quazi.

They were keen to reduce the chemical content of the detergent without affecting performance.“That was part of the dilemma in the early days,” says Quazi. “We have fewer chemicals than equivalent capsules in the market.” It in’t an eco product, however.

Dr. Karen Correia da Silva, senior social scientist at Canvas8, a business insights firm, says consumers are becoming much more savvy about eco products. “Making more environmentally conscious decisions when it comes to cleaning products and practices has become increasingly important as many consumers continue their quest to live and consume ethically. In cleaning and laundry specifically, health and environmental concerns are gaining influence over buying decisions.”

However, she adds that performance is still the main factor for many consumers. “Sustainable products are rarely market leaders. Performance still reigns supreme when it comes to consumer choice,” says Correia da Silva.

Aside from the subscription model, Quazi claims that Smol is different because it is cheaper. A regular pack costs£3.85 for 24 capsules (16p a wash).

Open pack of SMOL liquid detergent tabs



An open pack of Smol liquid detergent tabs

The company currently has around 50 staff working remotely in customer service roles, most of whom are mums, working from home . “Most of our customers are, sadly, women (as they are still doing the majority of the laundry) so it’s important that the people who work for us understand and appreciate our product,” says Quazi.

It’s early days for the business, and it has major competition on its hands. Earlier this year established brand Ariel launched a huge £10.5m marketing push.

Quazi argues that the relationship between brands and consumers has changed. “People want a two-way relationship, one which revolves around trust, listening,” she says. “And the fact [is] current brands are not meeting the needs of consumers.”


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