WHEN A CLEANING PRODUCT MANUFACTURER’S LINE STARTS GETTING A LITTLE DULL, A REBRAND CAN BRING BACK THE SHINE – AND ADD SOME EXTRA FRESHNESS
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This article was excerpted from OPEN Book: Branding, which provides tips and advice for building a Booming brand. Follow the evolution Cardmember brands featured in our new web series. Project RE:Brand, in which small businesses undergo brand makeovers by design experts.
Steve and Melissa Zeitler keep a clean house. “I wouldn’t say it’s spotless,” says Melissa, “but we’ve certainly got the tools to keep on top of things.”
That’s because cleanliness is the Zeitlers’ business. The husband-and-wife team are the founder-owners of Citra Solv®, a Connecticut-based company that’s established a solid reputation for creating high quality cleaning and personal care products that combine efficacy with environmental friendliness. The range of naturally derived cleansers, soaps, detergents and air fresheners are made from renewable resources and have minimum environmental impact. The Zeitlers aren’t exactly zealots, but they are missionaries when it comes to high-performance, low-impact buffing, shining and scrubbing. “We’ve distilled everything we’ve learned, and continue to learn, about the cleaning process into our products,” says Steve.
That amounts to a fair repository of knowledge. The company was originally formed in 1977 by Steve’s father and various other Zeitler relatives as a janitorial supply business. Steve took over three years later and built it up as a consulting company for cleaning contractors in the New York City area. “We would advise on carpet and fabric care, backroom sanitation for supermarkets, that kind of thing,” he says. “And we’d have crews out doing floor care and rewaxing. We amassed a lot of expertise across a whole range of environments and surfaces.” The idea for Citra Solv® came about when Steve decided to seek out an alternative to the hazardous chemicals that the company was deploying in its range of cleaning materials. “We began to actively concern ourselves with what we were selling,” he says. “We wanted a natural substitute for petroleum-based solvents, so that we could reduce the carcinogenicity and toxicity of the material being used in the workplace and the home.”
This was in the mid-1980s, with the nascent environmental movement still a gleam in the eye of what Steve calls “the nut-and-berry natural food consumers.” Originally, he says, he and Melissa simply sought to formulate a better-working product: “But our son, Eric, was born at around the same time, and we began to think about the next generation and what kind of planet they might stand to inherit. So a chemist friend developed this diverse, dilutable, water-rinsable product made from oranges, with a unique performance and fragrance.” He chuckles. “Well, that’s what we thought, anyway. But there was nothing like it on the market at the time, and supermarket buyers were like, it’s made of oranges? What do you mean? It was a huge challenge to get the message across.”
So the Zeitlers spread the word themselves via in-store demonstrations – Melissa handed out flyers at the front, Steve did what he calls “the carnival thing” at the back, extracting grease-gum and tar from carpet swatches. But as concern for the environment grew, so did the number of stores stocking eco-friendly “natural” products, including the Zeitlers’ distinctive orange-logoed cleaning concentrate. They stressed their early adopter eco-credentials via the Citra Solv® website, which features tips on ethical living and the continuing adventures of Rustle the Leaf, an animated character who faces down various environmental challenges. “We only had the one product until the mid-1990s,” says Steve. “Then we finally came up with a pre-watered spray cleaner, air freshener, and castile soap. Then, in 1999, we launched our laundry and dish detergents, and glass cleaners.”
Today, the Zeitlers produce more than 20 products, with CitraSuds®, CitraWood® and CitraDrain® lining up alongside the original Citra Solv®, and new fragrances, including grapefruit and bergamot, expanding their citrus family. And therein lies their dilemma; they feel that their brand, along with their products, is becoming diluted, as the growth in eco-cleaners has correspondingly exploded. “We’ve kind of painted ourselves into a corner,” says Melissa. “Growth’s been steady, and our customers are very loyal, but we’ve arrived at a point where we need to move beyond the orange. And we’re now up against all these major brands deciding that they suddenly want a piece of the eco-action.” She pauses. “We needed some fresh thinking.”
Courtesy of American Express OPEN’s Project RE:Brand they were partnered with The Apartment, a New York City–based agency that offers fully integrated branding and marketing, as well as conceptual development. Melissa admits to feeling “excitement, and a little trepidation” at the prospect of a top-down brand rethink: “This was about the company itself as much as the product,” she says. “Who are we? What do we want to convey to people? We’d never really had the chance to stop and think about that. Your own focus is limited, but to have an outsider’s eye, looking in – potentially, that’s so much more practical and beneficial.”
The Apartment immediately identified the Zeitlers’ key problem: the Citra Solv® brand had become too limiting, with the additional products giving it a disjointed feel. Their proposed solution was to unite all the disparate lines under a new brand name – HomeSolv® – that showcased the breadth and diversity of the Zeitlers’ portfolio. They also created a new misson statement that reflected the brand’s voice and passion: “Bringing you solutions for every corner of your life, from our family to yours, Citra Solv®, since 1987.” Furthermore, they designed new packaging that showcases the fruits of HomeSolv®’s labors – such as gleaming silverware and dishes – that was clean in every sense of the word, and would help the brand stand out in an increasingly saturated market.
“We’re thrilled with this new positioning,” enthuses Melissa. “It’s not just that it’s given us the route out of the orange box we got stuck in, and emphasized the familial nature of the business. It’s also that it takes us even further, beyond the ‘natural’ niche, into the message that we’re a generally efficacious home-cleaning product that just happens to be eco-conscious.”
“Brand identity is a funny thing,” muses Steve. “I think these messages were all there before; if you go on our website, there’s a somewhat homey and informal feel. But it wasn’t as honed or as well-crafted as it could have been. Our biggest goal has always been to communicate who we are to current and potential customers to figure out what will make them relate to us – where does that emotional attachment come in? The really successful brands, like Apple, have a certain personality that they communicate consistently, and that’s where you get the loyalty and corresponding success. And I think what we’ve got from The Apartment is a way into that, a great starting point for us to work from.”
For the Zeitlers, and Melissa in particular, The Apartment’s proposals have inspired a bout of what you might call blue-sky, or, more appropriately, spring-clean thinking. “I never dreamed that we’d have the opportunity to escape our self-imposed shackles in this way,” she says. “We’ve been handed a whole new identity, where the name leads into the story, and we can place existing and additional products within that framework. It’s altered who I think we are and the way we look at the company. It’s defined the familial nature of what we do, and I want to retain that feel, no matter what happens next.” There’s a gleam in her eye to match that of any of her products’ freshly burnished surfaces. “Thanks to this project, I now see where I want to go.”