Sweet smell of success

Monica Nassif’s cleaning products are leading consumers around by their noses

“Julia Child Invented Modern Life,” U.S. News & World Report pronounced in a cover story in September 1997. “She made America mad for food and changed notions of class and gender.”

Child changed what we eat, the way we eat and the ways we think about food. She changed assumptions about television programming, and she forever altered the way cookbooks are written. The revolution she began is ongoing; it has spilled over into nearly every product we buy for our bodies and homes.

It has spurred a Minneapolis entrepreneur to change the way we clean those houses we have filled, since Julia, with the smells of coq au vin and baguettes at first, but later paella, jambalaya, doro wat and other delicacies from around the planet.

Monica Nassif can’t teach you how to cook, but she’ll sell you the spendy, sophisticated citrus, pine, and green tea patchouli products with which you can clean up afterwards.

Nassif is the founder of the Caldrea and Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day companies in Downtown. The Lynnhurst resident is a former Target marketing executive; now she’s targeting urbanites with natural, eco-friendly, high-end cleaning products scented like nuanced perfumes with yuppie-luring bouquets (basil blue sage is Caldrea’s latest).

“We’re trying to reinvent the cleaning experience,” she says.

Sexy packaging

Caldrea customers are different from the average consumer, Nassif says.

“This is a very sophisticated, well-traveled, very savvy consumer who is more about the experience of the product than the price point.”

They’d better be about more than price point – a 16 oz. bottle of Caldrea’s dish soap is eight bucks (compare that to the $1.99 bottle you might pick up at Cub).

“We had to start at the specialty store sector to prove we had a [sellable] category. So when you do that, you cannot just charge $8 for dish soap just because you think it has sexy packaging. It has to be radically different.”

The radical difference is multifold: yes, the packaging is sexy (it looks as if you’re buying chic perfume offered up a in low-key, high-end presentation), but the scents are the real dealmakers.

“All of our cleaning products are cosmetic grade: the same ingredients you’ll find in your body lotions, your shampoos, your fine fragrances, are in our cleaning products.”

You don’t get a whiff of cheap, faux lemon or a burning blast of artificial pine when you open a bottle of Caldrea dish soap. You get seduced by that sage or gently swept off your feet by rose pink peppercorn. Subtle, natural, gorgeous scents are the key here.

“We wanted all of our base formulations to be plant-derived, no phosphates, no chlorine, no solvents, biodegradable, and we wanted them to hold an essential oil,” she said.

Plus, Caldrea fragrances aren’t going to go to war with each other. You can buy dish soap that has the same fragrance as your cleansing powder and as your furniture polish and so on.

“We pioneered the concept of one fragrance for your entire home,” Nassif says proudly. “It drove me crazy. I thought, ‘Why are the windows, the floors, whatever, all different fragrances?’ I used to light Aveda candles all around the house to mask all the different odors, which I never really liked. I thought, ‘Who wrote that rule? Why can’t you have lavender in your home and have it be really fresh and fragrant?’”

Scent of an entrepreneur

Nassif has lived in Lynnhurst almost 20 years – “I love it a ton” – where she and her husband have raised a two daughters. (Their names, Calla and Aundrea, were combined to make the name Caldrea.)

“Six or seven years ago, I had this epiphany in the store,” she said. “I saw this pallet of cleaning products and I remember turning my head and going, ‘This entire category insults the customer.’ First of all, they’re just visually hideous. You’d never leave them out on your counter because you just can’t stand the sight of it.”

She said the makers of those products add environmental injury to the visual insult.

“These are caustic chemicals that are probably harming our kids, our cats, myself.”

She decided after the epiphany to launch Caldrea, a high-end line of dish soap, powdered cleanser, wood furniture cleaner, countertop spray and all-purpose cleaners.

Caldrea is a specialty store line, Nassif says; in her own part of town, she can buy it at Patina, Bibelot, Kowalski’s and Bachmann’s.

“It’s viewed almost as a high-impulse gift purchase. So we’re not competing with other dish soaps or cleaners, really. We’re competing with a cute bracelet, a funny book, a cute pair of earrings. So it’s a different kind of competitive play. So that’s the other thing we kind of pioneered. Who says that cleaning products can’t be giftable?”

Her more moderately priced Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day products are named after her own sensible, thrifty mother, Thelma Meyers, of Granger, Iowa. The Mrs. Meyer‘s line, too, has scents more commonly found in perfumes, though the fragrances aren’t as complex. Caldrea’s are multilayered – green tea blended with patchouli, for example – while Mrs. Meyer’s is a bit more straight-ahead (lavender and geranium are two popular scents).

“We thought we had such a strong concept [with Caldrea] that we didn’t want somebody knocking off our concept and running off to mass [marketing] where the majority of cleaning products are sold. At the end of the day, if you want to do any significant volume, you have to go to grocery [chains] and mass, so we created the Mrs. Meyer’s brand.”

The Mrs. Meyer’s products are where Nassif’s greatest hopes for big, mainstream success probably lie. The products are already in 3,000 stores nationwide, including the upscale chains Whole Foods and Wild Oats. Nassif says she and her company are working toward having Mrs. Meyer’s in Target stores, Cub, Wal-Mart and all of the other mass market, big box stores where 60 percent of cleaning products nationwide are sold.

“Mrs. Meyer’s brand is clearly destined for the mass,” she said. “We’re working hard to educate the consumer that there’s a whole new way to clean.”

Cleaning up in other areas

Just in case consumers aren’t tuned in to the new way of cleaning, or perhaps even in to the old ways of cleaning, Nassif’s multipronged marketing approach has another point. She wrote “Laundry: The Spirit of Keeping Home” and “Spring Cleaning: The Spirit of Keeping Home” in 2003 to address questions and issues raised by her Caldrea and Mrs. Meyer’s consumers, some of whom simply have no idea on how to get pet stains out of carpeting or how to press a pair of pants or how to properly mop a floor.

“It’s because people don’t know how to do this any more. I was raised so that I know how to iron a shirt, I know how to clean up, I know how to cook, but if you ask a lot of other – I hate to say this – women, a lot of people don’t know how to do this.”

The keys to making cleaning enjoyable and more manageable?

“Great music, man,” says Nassif with a laugh. “Get the music really cranked up.”

After you get the tunes adjusted, she says you have to make sure your cleaning goals make sense.

“You have to be really realistic. If it’s Saturday and you only have two hours, well, that’s all you have. Don’t try to clean out the attic, the mechanical room and, especially in South Minneapolis, all these dingy basements. Who can do that in two hours?”

She says her own goals for her companies are realistic. She wants to change the way people clean their homes and she wants to do it with beautiful scents and eco-friendly products.

She’s also realistic in the sense that she knows one day, and it might not be far off, the giants of the cleaning product industry are going to notice the phenomenal growth Caldrea and Mrs. Meyer’s have had. And the giants are going to come after this booming segment of the market.

Nassif said she’s not going to worry about that.

“Our philosophy here is we keep our head down and worry about our brand. The way that we’re going to be highly completive is by doing what we’ve always done, better and better every day.”