Teflon's new message: Go ahead, tread on me

Posted: April 02, 2003

DuPont Teflon is famous for preventing food from sticking to your pans.

Now, it's taking on a new role: keeping dirt from sticking to your floors.

This month, Salem County's Mannington Mills Inc. will begin selling vinyl, hardwood and laminate floors with a coating that includes DuPont's Teflon surface protector.

Mannington hopes the widely recognized, 58-year-old Teflon brand will help spur sales - particularly of vinyl flooring, which has been losing market share for a decade to hardwood and other types of flooring. Vinyl sales slipped from more than 12 percent of the floor-covering market in 1992 to about 7 percent in 2001.

Teflon coating is "something that a retail store can market and something that a consumer can understand," said Steven Cometz, vice president of purchasing at General Floor, a Bellmawr flooring wholesaler. General Floor carries products from Mannington and its competitors, including Armstrong World Industries Inc., of Lancaster, and Congoleum Corp., of Mercerville, N.J.

Prices for the lines with the Teflon coating, which does not change the appearance of floors but makes them easier to clean, will not increase, said Kim R. Holm, president of Mannington's residential business. "Mannington is absorbing this cost in an effort to drive growth," he said.

DuPont and Mannington have an exclusive five-year licensing agreement, James V. Forte, DuPont's global brand manager for Teflon, said.

Mannington, which has 2,000 employees, including 900 at its headquarters and factory in Mannington Township, is among the largest U.S. flooring producers, with $550 million in sales in 2001, according to an estimate by the trade publication Floor Focus.

The family-owned company went through a financially difficult time in the 1990s because of a faulty product introduced in 1990 but has fully recovered, said Frank O'Neill, publisher of Floor Focus. (The bad covering was designed to fit more snugly on the floor over time, but it pulled away from the edges.)

DuPont approached Mannington - based 17 miles southeast of DuPont's headquarters in Wilmington - about a year ago with the idea of adding Teflon to the coating that goes on several of Mannington's hard-surface flooring products, Forte said.

"It was very compelling," Edward B. Duncan, Mannington's senior vice president of marketing, said. Mannington did its own research to find out how consumers might react to having Teflon, which they are used to having on their frying pan, on their kitchen floor.

"Our research came back hugely positive," Duncan said.

Teflon, by design, does not easily stick to other materials, so Mannington relied on DuPont's expertise to bond the urethane topcoat to the floor.

Duncan said the benefits went beyond the chemistry to the power of a brand. Mannington is hoping the Teflon logo will catch the shopper's eye - especially when most homeowners are not accustomed to buying flooring.

"If it works, it strengthens both brands," said Richard Lancioni, chairman of the marketing department at Temple University's school of business.

O'Neill said he thought it would. "There are other surface technologies that are good but don't have the brand recognition."

O'Neill named Armstrong ToughGuard as an example. "Armstrong has some brand recognition, but the name ToughGuard doesn't."

From DuPont's perspective, the deal with Mannington is another chance to expand the Teflon brand into consumer markets beyond the core area of cookware, where it has been 40 years, Forte said.

DuPont is involved in related efforts for other well-known brands such as its bullet-resistant material, Kevlar, and its Lycra stretch fabric as a way to get more mileage out of older brands.

The first extensions of Teflon were automotive care products and architectural paints in 1996. Teflon is now also in Dockers pants, Sally Hanson nail color, Remington hair curlers, Verbatim floppy disks, and many other products.

DuPont does not disclose revenue from its licensing programs, but Forte said they had been successful for the licencees - even "close to gangbusters." DuPont makes money from licensing the Teflon brand name and from selling the material under its chemical name, polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE.

Mannington will apply the coating to its higher-end floors for the residential market, which account for 55 percent of the company's sales. About half of that is resilient, which consists of vinyl sheet and tile. Ten years ago, 85 percent of residential sales were resilient.

Even as vinyl sales have stagnated, O'Brien, the trade magazine publisher, said, the style and performance have improved dramatically in recent years.

The improvement in performance came first, driven by the popularity of sneakers and other rubber-soled shoes, which create a lot of friction and easily scuffed old-style floors. Mannington and other vinyl-flooring producers developed a urethane wear-layer that holds up to sneakers.

But, to O'Brien, the big issue is style. "The vinyl you see today is a far cry from what you saw in your grandma's house."

Contact staff writer Harold Brubaker at 215-854-4651 or hbrubaker@phillynews.com.

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