The tile adhesive market is a complex, diverse and highly competitive product category. It is driven, and skewed, by a multitude of often-conflicting market forces, writes international correspondent Joe Simpson.

At its heart the adhesive category has global chemical corporations with massive multi-national manufacturing operations armed with impressive research and development (R&D) labs, as well as vast marketing resources. For these companies, tile adhesives are just one of many categories in which they compete, and brand recognition is a key objective.

Then there are the specialist construction chemical companies, many of whom cut their teeth in the tile sector. Locked in an ongoing battle for marketshare, companies such as Mapei and Custom also invest heavily in R&D.

But is it also possible to manufacture tile adhesive on a far smaller scale? There is a long history of tilers turning their hand to small-scale adhesive manufacture. Most of the basic raw ingredients are readily available, and a semi-skilled chemist in a fairly basic lab can formulate a cement-based product that will perform the task.

These small businesses may not be able to compete with the latest advanced formulations, but many tilers would argue that, except in special circumstances, a lot of these valued added features just increase the cost of adhesive, rather than delivering significant benefit on site.

The tile adhesive market is largely influenced by the different requirements of its core customers. DIY multi-channel stores want minimal SKUs, strong branding, and volume sales at a good margin. Specialist tile retailers require a product that will draw in both the trade customer, and appeal to homeowners. That is one reason why dust-free packaging, with recognisable branding, and task-specific names, is now so prevalent. For example, Chemical Co’s Universal Wall Tile Adhesive rather than XYZ 432 Modified Thixotropic by Chemical Co.

But in major commercial contracts, it is a different story. Over the past decade, labour, as a percentage of tiling contract costs, has risen while the materials – tiles, trims, backerboards, adhesives, and grouts – has fallen. Most commercial developers will place speed above all other considerations. If you are laying a new airport or supermarket floor, the main imperative is minimising commercial downtime, not the adhesive cost.

In other sectors, such as house building, where the tiler is often one of the last trades on site and budgets are already stretched, cost can be more of an issue. But in most commercial contracts, reliability, performance, and avoidance of call backs will outweigh costs of the adhesive.

White versus colour

This market is also affected by other factors. The tile industry has to take the blame for one of these. When white bodied floor tiles first came on the market, tile manufacturers needed a way to promote these products, and justify the premium price. The answer, they told everybody, was that they were superior to red bodied tiles.

This is only a half-truth, of course. Yes, there were some poor quality red bodied tiles on the market, but a decent red bodied wall tile is every bit as good as a white bodied alternative. After all it is the glazed surface and the grout joint that provides the water-resistant surface, not the tile’s body.

However, the impression has stuck, and so homeowners and DIY customers have a marked preference for white bodied tiles … and pure white adhesive. White, they have been led to believe, is a sign of quality. And so adhesive manufacturers have had to compete in the whiter than white stakes, despite the fact that grey flooring adhesives have been established for years.

Environmentally sound

When it comes to advanced formulations, the past 20 years have seen a steadily escalating adhesive-technology arms race. This has taken in many different factors: setting times, pot life, trowelability, movement tolerance, initial grab, etc. Other developments have included dust-free compositions, gel-based formulations, and fibre-reinforcement.

The current hot topic is sustainability, linked to ecologically sensitive manufacturing and greener formulations designed to limit the adverse impact on the planet. Kerakoll for instance, now brands itself as “The GreenBuilding Company” and has underlined its credentials by building an exemplar Green Building Lab at its Italian HQ.

Of course, it is theoretically possible to combine all these attributes in one formulation: a super adhesive that is pure white, manufactured to ISO 9000 standards, that is fast setting, has an extended pot life, can accommodate significant substrate movement, sets quickly, can be safely used over underfloor heating, offers high initial grab for XXL porcelain, is easy to mix and trowel, and is dust-free to preserve the lung health of tilers. There is one problem – it is just too expensive.

There are formulations out there that have gone a long way down this road; but there are also very successful, pretty basic, cement-based alternatives that do the job. One reason for this is that tilers, on the whole, are a rather conservative bunch. Most are understandably wary of these new-fangled adhesives. They have always used the Blue bucket or the Red bag; and can’t see a good reason to change.

Online forums are rife with rumours that the formulations of favourite adhesives have been changed and now don’t mix as well, trowel as easily, have a shorter pot life, etc. These loyal users take some convincing to abandon their tried and trusted brand, which they use on site every day and have done so for the past ten years, in favour of a fancy gel-based product that might help save the planet.

For tile adhesive manufacturers, this is a problem. On one hand their R&D department is busy inventing new formulations that are faster, smoother, stronger, and greener but on the other hand, the market is asking: Is it worth the money?

That is why companies have launched basic brands to sit alongside their premium products. This, hopefully, will allow them to compete on price in one segment, without undermining their premium brand that has taken years to develop and required vast investment.

MUDD in the UK

A clear recent example of this is the MUDD brand from the UK’s leading manufacturer, Building Adhesives Ltd. For years BAL has been locked in an arm wrestle with Mapei, Kerakoll, Laticrete and others at the top and middle sectors of the market. It is a competition that has seen a constant stream of new formulations launched that provide a short window of commercial advantage. At the same time, it is also having to compete with Tilemaster, Bostik, Larsen, Palace, Norcros, Botament, and the other brands on price.

BAL’s solution is MUDD. The idea behind MUDD – our name is MUDD; your reputation is safe – is simple. It offers basic tiling products that get the job done with no fancy names, no gimmicky extras, and no hassle. It is billed as a range of hard-working products to see tilers right through the installation, from prepping and waterproofing, to fixing, grouting and sealing.

The MUDD ( name itself is a knowing nod to the slang term for the tile industry’s heritage of fixing techniques, but this brand is firmly aimed at the current market.

Alex Underwood, head of marketing at BAL, said: “MUDD is something completely different. A new name, a new range of products, a brand that zigs while other zag.”

House brands

Another way that manufacturers can address this market sector without damaging their own brands is, of course, through third-party manufacture of own-brand adhesives for the builder’s merchant, DIY multiple, and tile distribution sectors. For the savvy tiler, this can be a great way to source premium products at bargain prices: but it is also possible to purchase a pretty basic formulation at an inflated cost. So, trial first, buy in bulk later is sound advice.

But for professional tilers, the best advice is to match the products to the application. If you are installing a small format, glazed wall tile on a firm, flat, stable substrate in an area such as a kitchen, then a basic cement-based adhesive will get the job done. Take care over the grout choice and installation, and failure-free results and a satisfied customer are virtually guaranteed. However, if you are installing porcelain tiles in a wet room, or cement-effect tiles in a heavily trafficked area, or the installation is likely to be subject to substrate movement, thermal stress, or chemical attack, then higher specification adhesives are readily available to suit these requirements.

The plethora of companies now offering specific installation advice for the latest generation of gauged porcelain panels – extra-large format tiles – flag this as an area where tilers really need to pay attention when selecting adhesive. It must also be mixed correctly on site to get the right flow characteristics. As well as high initial grab, these adhesives have to cope with the problem of drying behind massive impervious slabs up to 1,800 by 3,600mm to achieve full adhesion.

Tilers can’t just press down the adhesive ribs when installing these mega sheets, it requires a slide-and-set motion. No wonder there are now robotic machines available that can accurately place these back-buttered panels. This is not a task for the unskilled or faint hearted.

In conclusion, where reading about the latest “all singing and dancing” tile adhesives, take time to consider the market forces that lie behind this new formulation. It just may be that making the tiler’s life easier was some way down the priority list so they just pick up another Blue bucket or Red bag. If it worked well last month, there’s no reason why it won’t work next month.