Non-culinary secrets of Colombian cycling: The undisputed king of the mountains

Photo: Manual For Speed

Photo: Manual For Speed

The battle over Colombia's laundry detergent market has been a fierce and somewhat unusual one. It's one that is complicated by cultural beliefs and behaviors that are difficult for international companies to account for or even understand. Add to that the fact that Colombians can be a stubborn bunch, and you end up with a market that the likes of Unilever and Procter & Gamble have been unable to crack.

Today, washing machines are commonplace in Colombia's cities, but are also becoming so in smaller towns and even some rural areas. Nevertheless, laundry detergents in bar form continue to hold a 43% market share, mystifying marketers from large multinationals looking for ways to spend sizable advertising budgets. Stranger still, however, is the fact that the brand that dominates the market (outselling competitors by more than 2 to 1) has never spent a single cent on advertising or marketing of any kind, while Unilever spent more than half a million dollars launching its own laundry detergent bar. But Colombians seem resistant to new products in this space, in large part because the king of laundry detergents in Colombia was crowned long ago. And that product's name, interestingly enough, is Rey (King).

Rey is sold in rather humble-looking 300 gram bars, which have completely dominated the market for forty years . Even the company that makes it has an incredibly unassuming and generic name, Detergentes Ltda. (Detergents LLC). So how can this simple bar of soap beat out gigantic multinationals that very badly want to take its market share? This can partially be explained by the fact that Rey is a cultural fixture, and has entered the Colombian mindset in a way that a new product (whatever its marketing budget) can never replicate. And this has as much to do with how Colombians think, as it does with the soap's abilty to clean. For example, research has shown that one reason why the bars continue to sell is that many in Colombia pre-treat stains with Rey, while many others fully hand wash some items before putting them in the washing machine, with the belief that a machine can only leave clothes clean on the surface, while undesirable grime still lurks within (we Colombians can be obsessive about things being clean). Additionally, Rey is used almost exclusively for all delicate clothing and underwear. So it serves multiple purposes, which are all still well within the realm of cleaning clothing. But it's here that things get interesting, because the uses and beliefs about this product cross into some rather unusual areas.

Clothing aside, many in Colombia use Rey to wash their hair, and claim it leaves it "shiny, and clean in ways no other product can". Some wash their face with it to treat acne, while many more coat their pots and pans with it to prevent them to become stained from the stove's heat. Some even use it to patch holes in radiators, and Colombian punks favor Rey as the ideal product to put up their mohawk. Really. And one band even named themselves after it. It's been used in construction mixing concrete with it to reinforce roofs, and architecture students use it to carve out studies of shapes they are working on. The amount of uses people have for it can only be compared to how North Americans think of duct tape.

A punk rocker in Bogota puts up his mohawk with Jabon Rey (Photo: Plaza Capital)

A punk rocker in Bogota puts up his mohawk with Jabon Rey (Photo: Plaza Capital)

Colombians wash their dogs with a solution of water and Rey, the same they would use to clean their floors and yes...they also use it for their house plants to make their leafs shine. Perhaps as a North American or European, you never thought you had to clean your plants...but we Colombians are obsessive when it comes to cleanliness, and the thought of house plants that are not sparkling will keep us up at night.

And it's here that we cross yet another threshold when it comes to uses and beliefs about this product (it's not often that one crosses not just one, but two thresholds, but Rey is an exception in many ways), ones that multinationals like Procter & Gamble have no doubt had difficulty wrapping their heads around. I'm referring to the fact that many Colombians believe Rey has...how can I put this...well...magical powers. You read that right. Many consumers prefer Rey because they believe that it brings them good luck, and helps rid their homes of evil spirits lurking within. Hence the tradition that some have of cleaning their home top to bottom on New Years Day with a solution of Rey and water.

Photo: Manual For Speed

Photo: Manual For Speed

If you think that these uses for the soap, along with the beliefs that trigger them, are unusual, you are not alone. In fact, college marketing courses in Colombia often assign group projects about Rey, in order to help students understand how a product that has never advertised, can hold such a large market share, while also holding such a special place in the minds of Colombians (see video below, just one of many from a college project, in which a consumer addresses how she cleans her home with it to rid it of evil spirits, while also using it for house plants, and pots and pans).

And it's here that a product like Rey and cycling intersect. Out of curiosity, over my last couple of trips to Colombia, I started to ask cyclists what they (or more often than not, their mother) used to wash their cycling clothing. Almost without fail the answer was, Rey. And how could it be anything else? It's always been used for delicate clothing, it's strong enough to wash pots and pans, yet it rinses out well enough that many use it as shampoo. And to top it all off, it brings you good luck and rids your surroundings of evil spirits, for when you are out training and racing. In fact, you can even use it to wash your entire bike, as I have in the past.

Sure Assos has a detergent, and Rapha has a soap that can be used "for gloves and mitts". But those products are inconsequential. Because to me, like so many other Colombians, there can only be one king. Rey.