It was 1999. On televisions everywhere in America, an exasperated woman appeared to be shaking years’ worth of dust from a fusty, worse-for-wear mop. In the background came a bubbly ’70s voice, intoning catchy lyrics: “This old mop makes me shake; that old vacuum makes me ache; this old rag draa-aaa-aaags me down.”
And then, a green cardboard box filled the screen, as a smiling woman and her daughter uncased a newfangled cleaning tool. “This box rocks: The radical new Swiffer sweeper. So simple to assemble,” said the narrator. The commercial cut to a dance-y cleaning montage with an equally catchy song about the new tool. And the rest really was history.
The Swiffer had arrived, and the cleaning world would never be the same.
The roots of the Swiffer are contested, but what we do know is that in the mid-1990s, Procter & Gamble set out to scale revenue by identifying uncharted market categories. The big question? Whether there might be a better way to clean floors.
“I remember it vividly,” says Wilbur Strickland, who was the R&D Director for Household Cleaners at Procter & Gamble. “[My colleague] Raleigh comes into the office, and he says, I think what people use — the cloth people use — might actually be more important than the chemical. It was an aha moment, and also a bit scary, because we were working for a chemical company.”
“I became known as the ‘Father of the Mop,'” Raleigh Ormerod tells me. “P&G would not have come up with Swiffer without me. I know that seems like a bold claim.”
Ormerod was a junior team member at P&G at the time. His job was to develop better methods for floor cleaners, and he would write up his findings twice a week. (P&G also owned brands like Mr. Clean, which Ormerod says were underperforming in the market.)
So Ormerod began to run some tests that would better reflect what cleaning challenges the consumer faced at home. Eventually, he teamed up with the Corporate New Venture team. P&G brought on design innovation firms Continuum (now called EPAM Continuum) and Joss Engineering along the way for support. Together, they landed on a new type of mop: a dustpan, broom, and buffer all in one.
Though the Swiffer may not have been so radical after all.
“A similar product was already on the market in Japan, by a company called KAO,” reported a November 1999 article in the Cincinnati Business Courier. Later in the piece, a spokesperson for rival company S. C. Johnson went on record saying, “KAO was marketing this product in Japan for five years.”
Laura King — then Procter & Gamble’s brand manager for Swiffer, countered that “It was something we thought we could do on our own . . . We tend to think we can do things better.” At the time of press, S. C. Johnson had just rolled out its own knockoff, the Pledge Grab-It.
Strickland says that they were aware of the KAO mop, but that they thought they could tweak it, and through the integrations with other P&G intellectual property — for example, what they knew about absorption from the diaper brand they owned — they could riff and improve.
“The team spent hours upon hours interviewing people in their homes and then literally watched people clean their floors — a messy, tedious process involving a mop, bucket, some cleaning detergent, and water. After each interview, the team went back to the office to search for insights and question everything,” says Michaud.
“We started putting out early prototypes,” says Strickland. “And people didn’t realize they had that much dirt on their floors. They would turn over the [Swiffer] like, ‘Oh my god. Can I have one?'”
Swiffer was an instant hit: In the first year the “quick mop” launched, P&G had captured more than 60% of the specialized mop market with its new breakthrough tool, according to a report from growth consultants Fidelman & Co.
Before long, sales hit the billion dollar mark.
A publicly available 2018 report noted that, at the time, Swiffer generated global revenue of at least $500 million annually. Today, a full suite of Swiffer products are available, from the dusting series to an R2D2-looking air cleaner device designed to sit in one’s living room.
The thing they all have in common is convenience.
Strickland tells me that the original Swiffer was aimed straight at parents with young kids, and young adults without much time.
Interest in the products “tends to replenish” with that same group, he says. “Interest gets reborn with the same group of people, who are time pressed.”
No one will give me straight sales data for how Swiffer is performing today. A few former P&G team members without access to the numbers speculate that based on its volume and placement at big retailers, it’s still selling quite well, despite the growth of competitors like Roomba and Dyson.
Of course, over the past few years, the broader cleaning market has boomed, thanks to the pandemic. A PR representative from MSL Group, which works with Swiffer, tells me only that “During the pandemic . . . we saw an increase in Swiffer usage. As the pandemic has subsided, we have seen that trend continue.”
Swiffer may not yet be a relic of rapacious consumerism from a bygone era that valued instant gratification over everything else; but still: The biggest bone most have to pick with Swiffer is an environmental one. Many of its models rely on a one-time pad that gets thrown away after a quick clean. “Procter & Gamble is turning a profit at the expense of our forests,” said the subject line of a recent listserv from Friends of the Earth.
A few more eco-friendly options have emerged, like the Bona Mop or Easily Greener Mop Pads. But with the exception of a few outspoken critics like Jolie Kerr, Swiffer still dominates the cleaning market, to the point that it has become a household verb.
As we wrap up our conversation, Strickland tells me to Google-search the phrase “I love Swiffer.”
When the mop first launched, he says, it was a metric their team used as a crude litmus test for popularity.
“Every so often,” he says, “Someone would say, ‘Oh, now it’s up to 250,000 results!'”
I do as instructed, and in less than one second, I am met with 2,100,000 results.
“We didn’t really track it, or have a chart,” he says. “But we liked to see how it was progressing.”