How Clorox Took Over the Cleaning World and Became a Household Staple

The brand's reputation for killing germs makes it popular across industries

Courtesy of Clorox
Headshot of Robert Klara


Last month, the Harris Poll surveyed 34,000 American consumers and asked which companies enjoyed the best reputation with them. Skulking at the bottom of the list were Facebook, e-cigarette maker Juul and the Trump Organization. And at the very top, even above Hershey’s chocolate and much-loved grocery chain Wegmans, was Clorox.

Granted, were Americans not still in the teeth of a pandemic, flustered by fears of microscopic Covid-19 particles clinging to every surface in their homes, they might not have pushed bleach to the top of the most-admired list. Even so, there’s no denying that this household name brand is a cultural mainstay—and, in fact, it has been for most of its 107-year history.

Clorox is one of those curious brands that everyone knows by name yet knows little about. Most refer to Clorox as bleach, but it contains many ingredients, including water and washing soda, though the key component is sodium hypochlorite. A powerful oxidizer, it can do everything from dissolving stains on clothes to destroying germs.

The stuff has been around since the late 1700s, though it wasn’t mass produced until 1913 when the Electro-Alkaline Co. opened a processing plant in Oakland, Calif. By running an electrical current through the briny water of the San Francisco Bay, E-A’s chemists broke down the salt molecules to create sodium hypochlorite. Taking the “chlor” from chlorine and the “ox” from hydroxide, they named their product Clorox.

But Electro-Alkaline had a marketing problem. Housewives of the early 1900s cleaned with lye, vinegar and baking soda. But bleach? They had no idea what that was.

Enter William Murray and his wife, Annie. In 1916, William took over as E-A’s general manager while Annie, who had run a grocery store in Oakland, got to work on sales. Billing Clorox as a “bleacher, germicide, cleanser and disinfectant,” she gave away free 15-ounce samples of the stuff. Word of mouth did the rest.

a person at an nba game wiping down a surface with a clorox wipe while wearing a blue glove
The public’s anxiety over contaminated surfaces has delivered fiscal results. Its health and wellness division reported a 33% increase in sales for the quarter ending June 30. In late May, United Airlines unveiled a new Clorox-equipped cleaning regimen. AMC signed Clorox for the staged reopening of its theaters starting July 15. On June 30, Uber committed to buying 270,000 Clorox wipes for its drivers. And the NBA’s deal with Clorox landed on Aug. 26 for supplies to protect players and refs.NBA/Clorox

In the decades to follow, Clorox became so integral to American life that, during the Great Depression, the company actually expanded. During WWII, the government—which used Clorox for everything from purifying water to treating battle wounds—couldn’t get enough of it. And, indeed, Clorox’s reputation as a germ killer is why everyone from airlines to sports franchises is eager to tell the public they’re cleaning with the stuff.

The downside is that, throughout the Covid-19 period, Clorox has been hard to find on store shelves, though the company is scrambling to address that.

“We understand the urgency to provide effective disinfecting products to consumers, and we take our role in fighting this pandemic very seriously,” said a spokesperson. “We are doing everything feasible to expand our supply capacity, including running our manufacturing facilities 24/7.”

Incidentally, that manufacturing no longer involves shooting electricity through the waters of San Francisco Bay. The company’s original Oakland building closed in 1992, and today Clorox is made in six plants across the country.

With the notable exception of President Donald Trump’s suggestion in April that injecting bleach is a viable way to treat Covid-19—it is not; ingesting bleach can be fatal—Clorox has had nothing but good publicity this year.


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This story first appeared in the Sept. 14, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.
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