CHICAGO - Scotchgard, the water and stain repellent, was a sturdy household name before environmental concerns led 3M Co. to phase out production two years ago.
Now the St. Paul, Minnesota-based company is relaunching the brand with squeaky-clean replacement products and expanding into new areas, such as paint.
As a result, 3M hopes to boost Scotchgard\'s annual revenues to $500 million in the next three to five years from $100 million currently. That\'s an ambitious goal, but one that analysts say 3M is likely to meet.
\"I don\'t think I\'ve ever seen a company pull a product off proactively like they did and replace it with completely new chemistry as fast as they have done,\" said John Roberts, a partner and analyst with Buckingham Research, New York. \"It demonstrates a capability here that\'s pretty powerful.\"
The Scotchgard name has been almost synonymous with carpet and fabric protection since the product was invented in 1953.
In recent years, however, 3M discovered the product was breaking down into a substance known as perfluorooctanyl sulfonate or PFOS, which lingers in the environment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has pushed for limits on its use out of possible health concerns.
3M, whose diverse products range from Post-It notes and Scotch tape to industrial adhesives and electronics, decided in May 2000 to end worldwide production of PFOS after traces of the chemical have been found in the blood of humans and animals worldwide.
3M has said there is no evidence of PFOS causing any health problems at current levels.
Since then, the company has exited the paper and packaging market where Scotchgard was used, for example, to keep oil from leaking through microwave popcorn bags. 3M has no plans to reenter that market.
With Scotchgard\'s other markets, though, the company started actively looking for replacement formulas as it let inventories decrease. Its new products are based on proprietary fluorochemicals that have been shown, through testing, to not accumulate in living organisms, the company said.
\"These products had to be environmentally sustainable,\" said Scott Harnetty, vice president of 3M\'s protective materials division, which include Scotchgard.
In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reviewed all of the ingredients used in the new formulas and none were found to raise any concerns, an agency spokesman said.
Branding experts said 3M\'s decision to relaunch the Scotchgard name makes sense because the name is already so well established in consumers\' minds. The brand also is one that consumers associate with quality, despite the phase-out.
BRAND STILL STRONG
Despite the environmental concerns, the Scotchgard brand has held up. A poll conducted for 3M by Total Research Corp. in December 2001, for example, found that Scotchgard was rated in the top 4 percent of 1,000 major brands for quality among U.S. women ages 25-54. In the process, it beat such household names such as Rubbermaid, Nike, Ford, Burger King and MTV in the process.
The important issue, said Erich Joachimsthaler, founder and chief executive of Vivaldi Brand Leadership, New York, is that the new product work as it\'s supposed to do - prevent stains.
\"If it\'s a problem with the principle benefit on which something is positioned, you have a problem,\" he said. \"But if it\'s something else and they can build on the old associations, they have a good chance of relaunching.\"
Although Scotchgard has remained available since 3M stopped production, even a short absence from the market wouldn\'t hurt a relaunch, experts said.
\"A strong brand...will survive even some absence from the market, assuming that when it relaunches it\'s as good or better as the old product,\" said Lee Lodes, group director with Interbrand, New York.
3M said it has worked closely with customers to make sure that is the case. The company also has used Six Sigma, a statistics-based quality-improvement program, to speed up the commercialization process.
FIVE NEW PRODUCTS
Five revamped products are already being commercialized. Four are for carpet, where 3M\'s Scotchgard has lost ground to DuPont Co.\'s Stainmaster product during the phaseout. The fifth one, for leather upholstery and apparel, was introduced last month in Europe and will be launched globally in September.
Five additional products are due yet this year, including some for apparel as well as nonwoven fabric, such as that used in surgical drapes.
Late in the year, 3M plans to expand Scotchgard into new territory. It is working with a major paint manufacturer on a flat latex paint that will be easy to clean and keep its flat finish even after scrubbing.
3M\'s Harnetty said surveys showed consumers had already broadened the Scotchgard brand promise beyond soft surfaces such as carpet and apparel to include hard ones.
\"When we look around the home, we see a lot of ceramics, wood, laminate, appliances, countertops, cabinets, decks and others,\" he said. \"There\'s as much hard surface in your home as there is soft surface.\"
He said the new Scotchgard products expected this year will be just the beginning.
\"We don\'t intend to stop the new product commercialization machine on Dec. 31,\" he said. \"There will be another list of eight to ten following right behind them. We\'ve got the (technology) platforms to support it and... a process to bring a new product out in 12 months or less.
Story by Karen Padley
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE