The Laundress – A Natural Expansion

I received this e-mail from ‘The Laundress’ this morning.  It might surprise you to think of a candle collection by a ‘laundry brand’.’  But then you might also not be familiar with The Laundress.  For scented candles are just the latest addition to what is now a lifestyle brand that has outgrown its name a while ago.  It’s “a natural expansion,” as the e-mail states*.

The Laundress is a good illustration of how premium brands create business scale differently.  Mass brand marketers strive to gain deep penetration into the last nooks and crannies of a geographic market and share of the use for a certain product (eg. a deodorant) or even a specific benefit- or user sub-segment (eg. a deodorant for young men).   By contrast, premium brand marketers often look to create scale ‘horizontally’ – across products and services, across ‘industries’ and metro cities across the globe that tend to harbor the type of consumer who makes such niche offerings and ideologies their own.  For many premium brands are at least as much about ideas and ideals than they are about functional benefits of a certain product.  They are adopted by people to help build their identity.  And that would not work as well if they were omnipresent, accessible and/or affordable to everyone.   It does not work either, if the kind and speed of your extension doesn’t fit with that brand ideology.  We call it “Moving With Gravitas“.

Gwen and Lindsay, The Laundress founders and self-declared ‘soap mavens’ started their business in 2004 in New York City. Their mission was to “hang the cleaners out to dry.”  Young fashionistas, they were frustrated to have to go to the dry cleaner with most of their label clothes.  It struck them not only as an expensive ritual but also a potentially damaging one for their cloths.  Being trained ‘fiber scientists’ and designers, they went about studying the subject in-depth and concluded that good-ol’-hand-washing was the best way to care for most garments – provided you had the right, “carefully crafted” soaps to help do the magic.

After a year of study, The Laundress launched a liquid ‘Signature Detergent’ and Gwen and Lindsey went on a real, virtual and viral tour to show and tell their story.  –  Those videos of Lindsey washing a vintage Chanel coat are unsettling, at first (see below)!  But the message seemed to hit a nerve with a niche audience that was not only concerned about the impact of dry cleaning on their fabrics and wallets but also on the environment.  People with a bit of a romantic view of the good old world where things were done by hand with high quality products made of pure ingredients. As the buzz built-up, The Laundress extended their line up into a matching Signature softener, an unscented version, a powder and a soap bar.

By now, The Laundress started to supply an international audience.  Not only through the occasional online order but an extending network of purveyors of fine household care goods (as the Queen would say).  Department stores, fashion boutiques and specialty household stores around the globe had taken note and started to distribute.  The Laundress had become hip with repeated exposure through the international fashion and lifestyle press, in-the-know bloggers, an own blog and viral The Laundress shows.   And the assortment kept expanding.  Special detergents were now available for clothes white, dark, delicate, denim, sport, baby, swim … you name it. All at about $20 to 30.  Those detergents were joined by branded, equally exquisite laundering tools such as enamel buckets and basins, sweater stones, brushes made with natural horse hair, wooden pins, lavender scent pouches, retro laundry bins and bags (with monogram, if desired) and so on.  Beyond these nostalgic accessories, The Laundress also offers modern additives and implements – such as deodorizers, wrinkle sprays or the electric steamer.

If you like the thought of treating your clothes to such a spa-like experience but are not excited (or frightened?) by the idea to be the masseuse, then you can use The Laundress service to do it for you.  It’s a paltry $45 for that coat (and you can imagine it is washed by Lindsay, herself).  Finally, in a clever move to maintain edginess and aspiration, The Laundress launched cross-over line-ups with such hip fashion labels as J.Crew, John Smedley or modern perfumers Le Labo.  The fun of hand washing might wear out at one point – or the money to use The Laundress daily – but there might be room for that indulgent special load with ‘Le Labo’s Santal 31’ (only $80 if you buy ‘Rose 31’, too).

Et voilà! – You would have The Laundress premium mega-brand, having extended the ‘laundering’ category as far as one might imagine.  But things didn’t stop there.  The Laundress had really helped drive the idea of wholesome but stylish homemaking among a larger trendsetter audience.  It was only logic for “the cult detergent team**” to keep extending their franchise into dish washing, household cleaning, home linens, storage items, home perfume sprays … and scented candles.

How long can this expansion go on and successfully fuel The Laundress growth?  It will largely depend on how long the brand guardians can keep the Myth and Meaning of the brand to grow ahead of the propositions they bring to market and on whether these propositions remain relevant and consistent with that myth.  Giorgio Armani is on a run in this respect.  Martha Stewart has tripped.  And The Laundress?


The latest on the Laundress
I received an e-mail this morning, some 4 years later,  from Gwen, one of the co-founders.  They have sold The Laundress to Unilever.  This means a brand new chapter in the expansion story of the brand is about to start.  One important ingredient to avoid that ‘scaling’ from crushing this jewel of a laundering brand will be to smartly ‘ring-fence’ and protect it from ‘Big Soap’.  More on that in this link.


A soap maker extending into candles might be a ‘natural expansion’ in more than one way. In the old days, soap was made of bones and candles of tallow, both by products of the meat-packing industry.  That’s how Procter & Gamble one of the world’s biggest detergent makers started out in 1837 – with soap and candles.  The Laundress just following in those footsteps?  Likely, not.

The Laundress website.  All pictures were sourced from the site and TL e-mails
Lindsay The Laundress doing a hand wash demo (in case the video below doesn’t work)
The Laundress on world tour – available at fine purveyors of household care goods
This link leads to the first European store opening story.
The Fashion and Lifestyle world takes note – even the ‘World’s Luxury Guide
The latest addition: The Laundress Candles in the NY Times blog
** Quote from the  ‘The Women’s Room Blog’


About JP Kuehlwein

JP Kuehlwein is a global business leader and brand builder with a 25+ year track record of translating consumer and brand insights into transformational propositions that win in market. Principal at ‘Ueber-Brands’ a New York consulting firm, he now helps others to elevate brands and make them peerless and priceless. JP also teaches brand strategy at NYU Stern and Columbia Business School and leads the Marketing Institute at The Conference Board, all in New York. Jp previously was Executive Vice President at Frédéric Fekkai & Co, a prestige salon operator and hair care brand and lead brand- and corporate strategy development and execution at multinational Procter & Gamble as Brand Director and Director of Strategy. JP and Wolf Schaefer have co-authored the best-selling books “Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueber-Brands” which lays out what drives the success of modern premium brands and "Brand Elevation - Lessons in Ueber-Branding" a guide to developing and executing a brand elevation strategy. Find the books here:
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