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Tide: The History of the Smell of Clean in North America

Contact Author Rafael Trujillo, Research Fellow Master Perfumer, P&G
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  • An old Tide ad
    Initially launching with no fragrance in a test market, Tide expanded nationally in 1947 and marketed itself as “The Washday Miracle.” Changes in market demands led Tide to add a fresh rose scent to its formula in 1953. Photo courtesy of P&G.

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When I first began researching this topic I did what most people do and looked up the definition of the word “clean.” What I found surprised me. I was sure I would find some sort of reference to scent, smell or fragrance. Yet, when you look up the definition of clean on the internet, the first entry you’ll find is “free from dirt, marks or stains,” the second is “morally uncontaminated, pure, innocent” and the third is “free from irregularities, having a smooth edge or surface.” Nowhere do you see any mention of scent or fragrance. However, scents are added to almost everything we use today, from personal care products to candles, cleaning products, laundry detergents and soaps. Even cars have that “new car” scent.

Clean Throughout the Years

Over the years, clean has become a scent in itself, when in fact, the act of cleaning is all about removing dirt, marks and offensive odors. The sense of smell is the oldest and perhaps most powerful of all our senses. Our sense of smell is so powerful it can trigger memories and emotions that have long been tucked away. How does this happen? Scientists believe it’s something to do with the way your brain processes odors and memories. Smells get routed through your olfactory bulb, the nerve impulses from the olfactory bulb travel via the olfactory nerve to the limbic system in the brain. Smell is the only sense which travels directly to the limbic system, which is the deeply seated primitive part of the brain responsible for our motivation related to our feelings, moods, emotions, sexual behavior and memory. This close connection may explain why a scent might be tied to vivid memories in your brain, and then come flooding back when you’re exposed to that particular odor trigger. For example, certain smells can trigger feelings of happiness, relaxation or stimulation and feelings of irritation, depression and apathy. We also associate qualities with certain scents such as pine to clean bathrooms. That’s why certain fragrance memories imply households “are looked after” and clothes smell clean. Scientists and perfumers have zeroed in on scent cues to learn from consumers what the “smell of clean” is. We know that if your home or laundry smell a certain way, then they are clean.

As a perfumer for one of the largest perfume houses in the world, “The House of P&G,” these definitions have always fascinated me. In my 30 plus years’ experience of developing perfumes for some of the biggest household care brands in the world, including Tide, I have always been puzzled to see how different consumers from around the world associate fragrances with clean. At P&G, we spend a significant amount of time decoding what this means in terms of fragrance construction. For example, materials that connote clean in a liquid detergent may be different to those that connote clean in a powder detergent or in a fabric softener. The intensity at which the fragrance needs to be present at a given touch point may also influence the perception of clean. But, nowhere in the world is this more important than in Tide detergent where the brand has a historical affinity with scent and smells. In fact, I would argue that Tide really invented the smell of clean in North America.

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Picture the scene. It’s 1946, the end of the war. People were looking for a better life than before the war years with the Great Depression causing poverty and hardship worldwide. It was the start of the baby boom and with that a period of hope. It was at this time that Tide was introduced in a test market as the first heavy-duty granular detergent which was effective for all wash purposes: dishes and clothes. But Tide had no fragrance. The objective was to provide a high level of cleaning performance in all types of water and to leave no curd or film on washed surfaces. At this time, Tide’s competitors were all soap products. It was an instant market success. National expansion began in April 1947 with an advertising theme “The Washday Miracle” which was filled with claims of Tide’s superiority for all purposes – cleaner than any soap. It was at this time that Tide’s first perfume was introduced but in very small quantities. It was added mainly to cover the soapy off-odor of the detergent base. The fragrance had a simple construction with a basic odor character – rose and fougere.

Fresh and Rosy

In the 1950’s, the economy was improving. Innovations like Tide freed up women’s time and enabled them to move into the workforce. Families had more money to spend on their homes, home projects and fashion and the economy continued to grow. Tide made a bold move and partnered with automatic washers and established an endorsement – the first of its kind. In 1953, following market research that indicated Tide’s weakness in odor, the Tide fragrance upgraded to a fresh rose theme with a significant increase in fragrance level – still below 0.10% though. The fresh rose fragrance was more sophisticated than the original and ionones were introduced in the perfume to provide a more robust performance and cleaning connotation through the wash. It was about this time that Rose de Caron, English Leather and Eau de Hermès fine fragrances were being introduced and clearly influencing all manner of scented products. Throughout the 50’s the Tide fragrance was upgraded a couple more times and the rose theme evolved into a much more sophisticated fragrance construction. Popular fine fragrances at the time, like Arpege, influenced Tide.

The 1960’s was a turbulent decade with many events shaping our history including fashion where more synthetic clothes meant a change in Tide’s formulation to ensure it continued to deliver a high level of cleaning performance. In addition, the laundry market evolved with the sales of automatic washing machines ahead of wringer sales for the first time. In May 1962, Tide introduced the first perfume that achieved the long-sought-after benefit of “improved odor longevity on clothes.” This new perfume still carried the signature rose from the early days, but it evolved into a lily of the valley, a much more complex fragrance with a strong muguet aldehydic component (very popular at the time). It was at this time that we also saw the first introduction of musks in noticeable amounts that, together with the muguet aldehydes and some Schiff bases, helped deliver the perfume longevity on fabrics. By the middle of the decade Tide replaced a suds builder in the formula that for long had been associated with cleaning and efficacy, but on the other hand, it had limited the choices of perfume raw materials that perfumers could use for compatibility reasons. This change was critical for subsequent Tide fragrances as it opened up the possibilities to many more characters that other laundry brands enjoyed but were not feasible to execute in Tide at the time.

The 70’s brought with them a surge in fashion – who doesn’t remember platform shoes and flares? But at the same time, people were increasingly thinking about environmental concerns, and Tide was reformulated to reduce and remove phosphates. With the introduction of new ingredients formulated to break down protein and carbohydrate stains in the 60’s came the need to further strengthen the performance of the fragrance through the wash. A woody floral perfume was introduced in 1973 that improved odor acceptance versus competition. Musk usage continued to grow, and lily of the valley materials became even more important in the formulation with the rose accord still playing a role. Jasmine notes also started to play an important role too, particularly for substantivity; hexyl cinnamic aldehyde showed up at important levels and hedione introduced for the first time in Tide (at a very low level). Flower power!

The 80’s saw great socioeconomic change due to advances in technology – the launch of the Internet and the first computer, among others. And everything was big – hair, shoulder pads, color, clothes. It was also a decade of innovation for Tide. Low scented and fully unscented Tide were introduced to address the needs of some consumers who wanted little to no scent. By then the base odor was much better than the early years so this was now possible. In July 1984, a new fragrance was created for the launch of the first Tide in a liquid form. Performance through the wash continued to be a critical feature and new base odor challenges emerged intrinsic to the new form. Tide with Bleach was introduced leveraging perborate bleach with a bleach activator to deliver truly effective, non-chlorine bleach to clean dingy garments and remove stains. And in the late 80’s a breakthrough perfume was launched in Tide powders which leveraged green, floral notes combined with musks that created a strong clean signature smell on clothes. This was the first time Tide advertised its scent under the “Closthesline Fresh” tagline in package.

The 90's and Beyond

In the 90’s, we saw extreme advances in technology which also manifested themselves in science and perfumes. The 90’s saw a quick conversion to liquid detergents as they provided superior cleaning without the dissolution/residues tradeoff. Fragrance innovation also shifted significantly from powders to the liquid form.

In 1992, Liquid Tide launched a perfume that defined the trend for many years to come in liquid detergent perfumes. The citrus and floral fruity combination blended with a novel green, tuberose/violet complex provided superior consumer delight and did a great job in counteracting the typical amine base odor present at the time in liquid detergent. Liquid Tide with Bleach Alternative was launched to offer comparable level of cleaning to the Tide with Bleach but targeted to liquid users. With it, a highly performant fragrance was launched with overdose of musks and a white floral honeysuckle and citrus combination.

The 2000s experienced some of the worst and most destructive natural disasters in history. The early to mid-2000s saw a rise in the consumption of fast fashion: affordable off-the-peg high street clothing based on the latest high fashion designs. This included fragrances. Tide’s fragrance was upgraded based on emerging trends with white floral notes that played an important role but built off the citrus fruity combination which was present in earlier fragrance.

And finally, bringing us up to the present – the last decade has seen Tide expand into new benefit spaces that have required thoughtful consideration of the fragrance choices. New benefits like softness via “Touch of Downy,” cold water cleaning or “Freshness of Febreze” were supported with a menu of fragrances that were built around the targeted benefits but all with the iconic smell of clean. What Tide has managed to do so well over time is ensuring that its fragrance works holistically with the cleaning technologies in the detergent. So today, clean laundry simply smells like your favorite detergent. It smells like Tide.

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