What happens when TikTok is your marketing department?

In 2018, The Pink Stuff was little more than a household cleaning product with a cute name. “The miracle cleansing paste,” as every package said, was sold by only two retail chains in Britain. At a factory near Birmingham, The Pink Stuff line operated for approximately two hours a month. That was enough.

“It was a brand with many uses,” said Henrik Pade, CEO of Star Brands, the company behind the product. “But no one used it.”

Actually, The Pink Stuff, which is, yes, bubblegum pink, had some fans. One of them was Sophie Hinchliffe, a hairdresser who was then 28 and lived in Essex, about 30 miles east of London. Ms Hinchliffe had learned about The Pink Stuff on Instagram, naturally, and she had started posting daily videos to her then-new account, @mrshinchhome. All the videos were fragments of her relentless campaign to improve the house she had just moved into with her husband.

There was Mrs Hinch, as she called herself, using a toothbrush to scrub the grout in her bathroom. Here she was polishing her chandelier. If he was stained, The Pink Stuff would clean him up, she told her small but growing audience. Don’t buy new tiles, she advised. Spend 99p and restore the old ones. She also recommended other brands. The Pink Stuff was simply a favorite.

The “Hinchers,” as their devotees soon baptized themselves, found something meditative and satisfying in watching a talkative, glamorous, yet relatable woman eradicate filth. And these people weren’t just curious. They were looking for product advice from the housekeeping manager.

When “blowing” became a verb – defined as “to clean vigorously” – in Britain, the dark days of The Pink Stuff were over. Stores that sold it found customers waiting for the replenishment carts to pass by so they could get all the small containers they needed. Or more.

“I was like, ‘Guys, what have you done? I can’t get any!’” Hinchliffe said in a video interview. “Then The Pink Stuff got in touch and said, ‘Do you want us to send you some?’ And that was when I met the whole world of influencers.”

Hinchliffe, who has 4.8 million followers on Instagram, never made the move to TikTok — “I have a hard time keeping up with a platform,” he explained — but The Pink Stuff did. Pink Stuff-related videos have been viewed more than two billion times on TikTok, Star Brands says.

The Pink Stuff joins a mix of once-unknown products that have been transformed by the internet and TikTok in particular. It’s a list that includes the Guillotine Hoan Bagel, the Stanley tumbler, and Carhartt hats, to name just three. However, sales increases achieved through online glory can be fleeting. Just because a new product is jumping on the viral train, look, it’s the Dash Mini Waffle Maker! – doesn’t mean it will stay there.

According to Star Brands, which began tracking online mentions of The Pink Stuff a year and a half ago, the hashtags have been consistently viewed by approximately 20 million people each week. Sales have quadrupled since 2018 to about $125 million a year, a modest sum compared to giants in this space, such as Clorox, which has annual revenues exceeding $7 billion. But a few years ago no one at the company’s Leeds headquarters believed this figure was possible. The factory now operates three Pink Stuff lines, around the clock, with a workforce that has more than doubled. The product is now sold in 55 countries and is available at Walmart, Home Depot, and Amazon.

“We don’t spend money on traditional advertising,” Pade said. “It’s completely viral. Which is a little scary because we don’t have any control over our brand message.”

Marketing experts say that puts The Pink Stuff in a precarious position. When social networks make the fortune of a previously unknown product, they are at the mercy of forces that can be monitored but not managed.

“The goal should be loyalty, not virality,” said Marina Cooley, a marketing professor at Emory University. “Virality is dangerous because it is fleeting and it is not sticky. People get excited about the first interaction and then look for the next viral thing.”

The original version of The Pink Stuff was released in 1931. It was as pink as it is today, but it had a decidedly less charming name, Chemico Bath and Household Cleaner, and came in a gray glass jar. In 1948, it was packaged in a pink can, although it was not until 1995 that the manufacturer fully opted for the color of the product, adopting its current name. New owners took over Star Brands in 2018, hoping to breathe new life into some cleaning products. They soon hired the brand’s first in-house social media guru, but the sales needle barely moved until the Mrs Hinch phenomenon began. The company didn’t contact her until long after she had gained a following. (She was offered a free product, but was not paid for her endorsement.) It was all a coincidence. “You can’t plan to go viral,” Pade said.

As TikTok grew in popularity, Pink Stuff hashtags became part of #CleanTok, or videos offering tips, tricks, and hacks for those concerned about sanitation. For several years, it has been one of the most resilient niches on the platform. To date, there have been approximately 110 billion global views of #CleanTok videos, well ahead of #BeautyTok, with 78 billion global views, according to figures provided by TikTok to Unilever.

A typical #CleanTok video shows a so-called “cleanfluencer” (some have more than a million followers) working on a sink, pan or floor, with a particular cleaner and brush. There are usually before and after images, making these little vignettes a cross between a commercial and an episode of “Law & Order.” They start with a mess and end with a verdict.

“People find it very comforting,” said Lori Williamson, a Toronto-based cleanfluencer who recently racked up over a million views on a video of her cleaning a hair dryer. “Others say he is motivating.”

It has partnered with 20 brands, although not The Pink Stuff. He found out after Ms. Hinch showed it, but before Star Brands ramped up production, which he did in 2020, and bought a North American distributor, which it did last year.

“It cost $24 to get it,” Ms. Williamson said. “I was so upset.” (It now costs $4.99 on Amazon and is sold in about 30,000 stores around the world.)

How well does The Pink Stuff work? The vast majority of #CleanTok videos are triumphant stories. The Pink Stuff conquering all bathroom surfaces, The Pink Stuff reviving a sneaker. Someone in the comments section invariably asks the same question: Does the pink stuff have a name?

There are also Pink Stuff fails, such as pots that remain covered in baked-on grime. One woman warned that The Pink Stuff didn’t fix the scratches on her car, something it’s not designed to do.

Wirecutter, a consumer review site owned by The New York Times Company, tested The Pink Stuff and concluded that it was good but overrated.

Hinchliffe began posting videos to manage her anxiety and help her connect with others, like her, who felt more comfortable at home than with strangers.

“If I started to feel a little anxious or panic for no reason, I would grab my mop, vacuum cleaner or cloth, put on some music and go for it. ” she said. “And I found that I was no longer focusing on what was worrying me.”

With his fame, Penguin Random House came calling. Her debut, 2019’s “Hinch Yourself Happy,” was the first of a handful of books to reach number one on the Sunday Times bestseller list. The brands also called. Ms. Hinchliffe now works with Procter & Gamble to create versions of Mrs. Hinch’s cleaning products. Once a year, she travels to the company’s offices in Brussels and perfects her scent. Today she lives in a five-bedroom country house with her husband and her children, as well as a dog, chickens and alpacas.

A happily ever after ending is harder to predict for The Pink Stuff. It’s no longer up to Mrs. Hinch, but if the goal is to create a lasting product, Star Brands has its work cut out for it, said Professor Cooley of Emory University.

“It doesn’t seem like there’s an adult in the room, running the cult,” he said. “There needs to be someone who dictates a communication strategy: working with influencers, with retailers.”

Four years ago, when Generation Z discovered Vaseline, he noted, Unilever created a handful of new versions of the 152-year-old Vaseline, such as Gluta-Hya Vaseline, which it touted as 10 times “shinier” for the skin. than vitamin C. In other words, the company catered to the new audience.

Star Brands’ Pade says The Pink Stuff engages with influencers, but there’s no point in trying to control them. The tub design has been tweaked a bit and the company operates a four-person social media team to monitor hashtags and produce internal posts. Otherwise, The Pink Stuff convoy drives itself. Brand supporters can spot sponsored content from a mile away, Pade said, and they don’t like it.

“Interest will wane at some point because the popularity of cleansing will be surpassed by sex or drugs,” he predicted. “But once people find out about The Pink Stuff through social media, they try it.”

Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.