P&G Shows Its Softer Side With Downy Cause Effort

Procter & Gamble has launched a limited-edition bottle of Downy, a move that comes as the brand looks to raise 10,000 quilts for children as part of its latest cause-marketing effort.

Through June, P&G will donate 5 cents from every purchase of specially marked Downy April Fresh products to Quilts for Kids, an organization that works with volunteer quilters to make and distribute custom-sewn quilts to children in hospitals. April Fresh is Downy’s best-selling extension, and the program’s logo, “Touch of Comfort,” will appear on fabric softeners like its 60-load (in liquid concentrate form) as well as on 120-count laundry care sheets.

Introduced last year, Touch of Comfort is the brand’s cause-marketing platform. To date, P&G has donated 3,000 quilts to kids. The company is upping the investment this year (though P&G did not disclose the exact amount of spending) as Downy celebrates its 50th anniversary. Downy is not the only P&G brand to take this tack. Sibling Tide launched its own bottle backed by a cause-marketing campaign called Loads of Hope last April. That program benefitted victims of Hurricane Katrina.

P&G began shipping the Downy  bottles last month. The company is promoting the launch via TV ads and an online documentary. Both feature spokesperson Chandra Wilson, who plays Dr. Miranda Bailey on the ABC hit Grey’s Anatomy. The documentary, available on VideoEgg, YouTube and the Downy.com site, takes viewers behind the scenes of the quilt-making and delivery process. Quilter Barbara, for instance, designs a quilt with skateboard patterns for Cade, a 14-year-old with leukemia, while a young girl, Lauren, receives one decorated with butterflies and dragonflies. (In both cases, the quilter created designs to meet the recipient’s preferences.) Quilters can also name their quilts and then track which family has received it online.

Like Tide’s Loads of Hope charity initiative, which “brought a sense of hope through cleaning,” Downy’s program is a natural extension of the brand’s equity, in that it is “bringing comfort to children who need it,” said Downy marketing manager Mary Pochobradsky. P&G estimates that more than 6 million children are hospitalized each year due to serious medical conditions. “This is an opportunity for Downy to find a space that is really true to the brand,” said brand manager Marty Vanderstelt, adding that Touch of Comfort is Downy’s biggest marketing focus this year.

The push comes as the U.S. market for fabric softeners is particularly soft in a downturn. Dollar sales of Downy liquid concentrate fell 4.6 percent in food, drug and mass channels; fabric softener sheets, meanwhile, dipped 1.6 percent. (The data doesn’t include Walmart sales, and is for the 52 weeks ended Dec. 27, per IRI.)

Still, cause-related campaigns, including Downy’s, may prove instrumental in boosting sales. A study published last year by Cone, a Boston-based brand strategy firm, found that consumers are more likely to buy products with philanthropic missions attached to them—and even more so in tough economic times. P&G was the 16th largest spender in terms of sponsorships (which includes partnerships with nonprofits, sports, arts and entertainment events), shelling out between $60 million to $65 million on such deals in 2009, per data from WPP Group’s IEG.