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How Mrs. Meyer’s took over the hand soap aisle

Vox.com logo Vox.com 20/03/2020 Gray Chapman
a close up of a bottle: Hand soap is the best way to kill the coronavirus — just remember to wash for at least 20 seconds. © Sarah Lawrence for Vox Hand soap is the best way to kill the coronavirus — just remember to wash for at least 20 seconds.

Hand soap is, of course, having a moment.

At my local Target last week, stockpilers loading up on Purell, toilet paper, and dried beans had also picked the hand soap aisle practically clean. (A number of grocery stores have since enacted limits on how many items individual shoppers can buy at one time.) As someone who reflexively reaches for Mrs. Meyer’s more by force of habit than a conscious decision, I wondered how many others intentionally chose the brand for their quarantine soap of choice, bypassing the utilitarian workhorses in doing so. I had to imagine a band of wild-eyed, panicked shoppers flooding the soap section, only to pause and consider whether they wanted their quarantine to have notes of rosemary, basil, or oat blossom.

Though some are skeptical that an organic soap brand touting essential oils is effective in the face of a virus, experts say that soap, period, is one of the best tools we have at our disposal right now, and it doesn’t have to be harsh or hospital-grade. The Mrs. Meyer’s brand is (wisely) not overtly using Covid-19 as a marketing peg, but it doesn’t have to: Amid all the coronavirus service journalism to emerge in recent weeks, Mrs. Meyer’s soap and surface cleaner have been recommended by CNN, The Strategist, Mashable, and CNET, to name a few.

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I’ve never been particularly attuned to hand soap brands, but once I started looking for it, I realized Mrs. Meyer’s was everywhere. On an overnight trip to New York in February, I spotted it in the bathrooms of two out of the three Williamsburg restaurants I patronized, and in the studio of the artist I was there to meet. Back home in Atlanta, it lurked at friends’ kitchen sinks and in the bathroom of my neighborhood bakery.

In conversations with other people who regularly buy Mrs. Meyer’s, the same three or four reasons were echoed again and again: It looks nice on a countertop. (In an era when trash cans, cookware, and other formerly unremarkable utilitarian objects now make an aesthetic statement, this feels important.) The fragrance is nice, and never too sweet, too artificial, or too astringent. It seems gentler on hands. It feels just a tiny bit indulgent yet can be procured easily at most major grocers. And my favorite: “It’s environmentally friendly … I think?”

My $4 bottle of basil hand soap says, perhaps obnoxiously, that I’m not the kind of person who springs for Aesop ($39), but I’m just a little more discerning than basic “lemon zest.”

“Consumer expectations, in general, are much higher than they ever have been,” explains Cara Salpini, an editor at the industry trade magazine Retail Dive. “They’re expecting products to have sustainable, clean ingredients, to look and smell nice, to be really pleased with the product, and for it to function.” It’s why a mattress can’t just be a mattress anymore. And it’s how, when Mrs. Meyer’s began appearing on grocery store shelves in the early aughts, it was ideally and preemptively positioned to captivate millennial suckers like me.

It’s almost like, sometime around Y2K, a shrewd marketer got a glimpse into the buying habits of the future, and returned with the perfect formula for convincing people with a tiny bit of disposable income to spend it on something as objectively boring as soap for their hands. Step one: Design packaging that looked nice on countertops, and fragrances that felt a little bit special. Step two: Build the brand around a rustic and virtuous character from simpler times who loved gardening, taking care of her living space, and other wholesome activities one might categorize as “self-care” today. Step three: Gesture at being environmentally conscious. Step four: Profit.

“It’s environmentally friendly … I think?”

For years, Mrs. Meyer’s was one of few brands offering something slightly elevated for the kind of person who needed hand or dish soap, and wasn’t particularly willing to look for it outside of the grocery store — but was willing to spend $2.50 extra for it not to be orange Dial. Jarod Jones, a Mrs. Meyer’s loyalist who works in e-commerce and product merchandising, attributes the brand’s early success in part to its packaging: “When you see it next to the Dials and the Softsoaps, you’re like, ‘Well, clearly this is cuter,’” he says. “It seemed like trendy design at the time.”

Jones also makes candles, and found inspiration for one of his favorite creations (a radish and fern scent) in a bottle of Mrs. Meyer’s Radish, the scent that converted him into a fan of the brand. “That was something where I was like, ‘I am not finding this anywhere else,’” he adds. “Especially with kitchen stuff, it’s either ‘fresh scent’ or citrus over and over again ... so radish was really rad, because it smelled fresh but it’s not standard.”

When Mrs. Meyer’s launched in 2001, Pamela Helms headed up product and fragrance development. Helms continues to hold that title at S.C. Johnson, which acquired the brand in 2008. “When [founder Monica Nassif] explained the idea, I thought it was a radical approach, to bring this beauty of experience to a cleaning product,” says Helms.

Nassif, a former Target marketer, named the line after her Iowan mother, Thelma, a hardworking homemaker, gardener, and mother of nine. Thus, Helm explains, those early fragrances were mostly literal interpretations of what might be realistically grown in a Midwestern backyard: herbs like basil and rosemary; produce like radishes and rhubarb; Iowa pine during the holiday season. She describes these fragrances as having “a halo of healthiness to them.” (The line has since expanded that definition a bit to include less literal expressions, like “snowdrop,” “plum berry,” and “oat blossom.”)

Around the same time Mrs. Meyer’s entered the marketplace, Method, which hit Target shelves in 2002, also joined the soap-disrupting fray. The brand’s modern fragrances and Karim Rashid-designed packaging felt, and still feels, like a youthful foil to Mrs. Meyer’s homespun, folksy vintage; both looked distinctive from anything else on shelves at the time. Like Mrs. Meyer’s, Method worked sustainability and social responsibility into its messaging, trumpeting nontoxic ingredients and recycled packaging. In 2017, S.C. Johnson & Son (which also owns decidedly non-green chemical products like Windex, Drano, and Off insect repellent) acquired Method, too.

By the time Mrs. Meyer’s had made its way into higher-end grocery stores like Whole Foods nationwide in the mid-aughts, the New York Times Magazine nailed the brand’s throwback packaging, and the virtuous rural Midwestern homemaker for whom it was named, as part of the allure. “The goal isn’t to sell to the Mrs. Meyers of the world; it’s to sell to those who like the idea of her.”

It’s labor turned aesthetic, scrubbed bare of its dirt and elevated into an upper-middle-class Pinterest board

It’s true: In the same way that actual farmers’ homes probably don’t look like what Joanna Gaines calls “farmhouse,” actual homesteaders probably don’t spend $4 on 12 ounces of hand soap because it smells like geraniums. (Because, I mean, they probably use lye and lard instead.) It’s labor turned aesthetic, scrubbed bare of its dirt and elevated into an upper-middle-class Pinterest board. And in a time when an anxiety-riddled middle class might look for solace in soothing, cozy imitations of folk life (see: cottagecore), Mrs. Meyer herself and the wholesome, nurturing ethos she embodies welcomes one like a verdant meadow; a caricature of A Time When Things Were Simpler.

Now, nearly two decades after the Meyer’s/Method disruption, even the most pedestrian soap brands seem to be getting in on the boutique fragrance action. Last year, Softsoap debuted a special collection “meant to bring style and happiness to washing your hands,” with fragrances like orchid and coconut milk. Dial’s portfolio now includes options like white tea and the eternally millennial-baiting pink Himalayan salt. I asked Helms whether she felt other brands were cashing in on the allure Mrs. Meyer’s initially created. “We’re delighted that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” she says.

Does that change the way they do business, or how they think about their fragrance portfolio? “We’ve seen all kinds of sexy [fragrance] combinations out there, but we’re really staying true to what has got us to where we are today.” (Some might disagree — Jones, for one, sees some of Mrs. Meyer’s newer scents as straying from that path. “They’re not real scents. They have one called ‘oat blossom,’ which I’m like, that’s not a thing. It’s a made-up name.”)

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In 2019, Target debuted a new store brand, Everspring, a range of cleaning products in sleek packaging with interesting fragrances, a trendy serif font, and sustainability vocabulary words sprinkled on the labels. The line hit shelves on Earth Day. Like Mrs. Meyer’s, Everspring invokes its biodegradable packaging and plant-based ingredients in its copy. Some of Everspring’s products have received mixed reviews from the EWG, due to synthetic ingredients like methylisothiazolinone, a possible allergy trigger that could also present a hazard to aquatic life — and Mrs. Meyer’s has gotten pushback on this issue as well. In Mrs. Meyer’s case, there is also the ethical baggage of its parent company, S.C. Johnson, which has come under fire for animal testing, including toxic ingredients in some of its products, and donating to Republican politicians.

From an environmental standpoint, Mrs. Meyer’s isn’t perfect, but few mass-market household cleaners or hand soaps are. Whether it’s intentionally vague language (“chemical-free”) or straight-up obfuscation about ingredients, greenwashing has crept into many products sold by major retailers, from Simple Green to Raid “EarthBlends.” S.C. Johnson settled a lawsuit over misleading “green” language on Windex labels back in 2010. (The one truly great soap alternative that comes to mind is that clunky old stalwart Dr. Bronner’s, which is completely biodegradable and, thanks to its absurdly high concentration relative to its absurdly huge packaging size, lasts an actual lifetime.)

But the language on the label and the earthy scents at least make it feel like one isn’t harming the planet by purchasing. For a lot of people who buy Mrs. Meyer’s, maybe that — the suggestion of sustainability, the general aura of nature, the suggestion of digging around in a rural Midwestern garden — is enough.

Sustainability, as Salpini reminds me, has become not just a moral imperative but, in terms of capitalism, a crucial differentiator for brands, especially those that want to reach millennials and Gen Z consumers. “There’s a lot of interest [in sustainability], and it’s mainly coming from younger consumers,” she says. “I think you can imagine why.” And maybe that’s the other reason Mrs. Meyer’s seems to dominate so many middle-class vanities and kitchen counters these days. Its products telegraph the sense of “eco-friendliness” distinctly enough to capture the attention of a wide swath of shoppers: those who are vaguely interested in “green” products but not quite interested in researching a parent company’s lobbying efforts, or learning how to actually pronounce “methylisothiazolinone,” or strictly scrubbing their house with vinegar.

(In other words: “It’s environmentally friendly ... I think?”)

When I shopped for last-minute provisions last week, I grabbed one of the remaining bottles of Mrs. Meyer’s hand soap (in basil), just to be safe. So did a friend of mine, Katie Lambert, who told me she purchased her backup Mrs. Meyer’s stash on March 6, the same day she chose to re-up on Kleenex and Cup o’ Noodles. Prior to the pandemic, Lambert didn’t consider herself a Mrs. Meyer’s stan beyond the occasional hand soap splurge; she now owns a full suite of products, including the multi-surface concentrate, the dish soap, and the everyday cleaner. I asked why she reached for this particular brand when any brand would do. “If I’m locked in my damn house, I might as well clean with geranium,” she said. Buying bleach in bulk felt extreme and a little austere, she added, “but geranium-scented Mrs. Meyer’s feels like my life still, I guess. Normalcy through soap.”

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