CINCINNATI >> Procter & Gamble’s oldest brand is getting a makeover — kind of.
The consumer products company this month is updating the signature white soap packages for the 132-year-old Ivory brand with colorful, eye-catching packages, a remade logo and a new marketing campaign. But the soap itself isn’t changing, nor is P&G’s basic message for it.
"The heritage has always been about purity, and the fact that it does what it says it’s going to do," said Kevin Hochman, a P&G marketing director. "It cleans really well."
The remake is part of an effort by the Cincinnati-based company to breathe new life into Ivory. It comes at a time when Americans are scaling back on spending in the down economy, but are looking for little, cheap ways to pamper themselves, by say, taking a long, hot shower. As P&G has focused on bigger, faster-growing brands, the white bar of soap has lagged behind its rival Dove and faced increasing competition from the likes of Dial and Irish Spring.
Ivory isn’t among the 24 brands with at least $1 billion in annual sales at P&G, which in recent years has sold off several venerable brands, including Crisco shortening and Sure deodorant. But the soap that floats has a long history with the company.
Ivory was the first brand mass-marketed by P&G. It is the namesake of a P&G research and production center called "Ivorydale." It’s deeply entrenched in American pop culture as a sponsor of early television soap operas and the first televised major league baseball game. It even is a part of training of new marketing employees at P&G, who can learn about how Ivory reached consumers before mass media with free samples, children’s coloring books and recipe booklets.
"Ivory is where our origins are," Hochman said. "It has a special place in a lot of people’s hearts around here. It’s incredibly important to keep it alive and growing."
Ivory’s rich heritage isn’t enough to keep it afloat in the competitive soap market. A report this year by Mintel Group market research estimated U.S. sales for soap, bath and shower products grew 4.1 percent to $2.1 billion last year in food and drug stores and other mass market sales. In the nondeodorant bar soap category, Unilever’s Dove brand held 35.3 percent of the market, with Ivory at 5.8, down slightly from 2009. Ivory also has branded body washes, dish and laundry detergents.
Robert Passikoff, president of New York-based research firm Brand Keys Inc., said Dove’s "Real Beauty" campaign which featured everyday women — not models— in ads encouraged people to feel comfortable with their bodies and helped set it apart in a crowded category.
"What it did was imbued the brand with meaning beyond soap," Passikoff said. With Ivory, he said strong name recognition can be both a strength and drawback. "People know that it is a good product, they know it fulfills certain basic requirements; they know it floats. The bad news is everyone already knows that."
Hochman said P&G expects the new campaign to remind people why their families used Ivory in the past, and to attract new users with quality for low price. He declined to disclose Ivory sales figures, but said the brand’s performance has been improving this year.
"There’s never been a better time to relaunch this," he said. "There is so much tail wind at our back: the economic environment, this trend of getting back to things that work, and reminding us of a time when things were a bit simpler."
For help on revamping its Ivory brand, P&G turned to Wieden+Kennedy of Portland, Ore., the agency that produced one of advertising’s biggest hits of the last two years — the Old Spice Guy series that boosted sales for the seven-decade-old brand’s body washes and deodorants.
Through consumer interviews and other research, the agency and P&G marketers decided that they didn’t want to mess with Ivory’s consistent claim since the 19th century that it’s "99.44" pure soap. They also didn’t want to stray from its message of quality and price that make it, according to an 1882 ad, "the cheapest soap for everybody and every want."
Instead of Ivory’s usual nearly all-white packages, new ones will be more colorful. One is mostly bright blue. The new package emphasizes the 10 bars compared to 8- and 6-packs sold by most competitors with a big "10." A simpler logo plays off the previous of the 1950s and carries the slogan, "pure, clean & simple."
"We don’t want to do something that feels trendy or out of character for the brand," said Danielle Flagg, a Wieden+Kennedy creative director. "This iconic brand has a timeless feel, so we’re just putting it with a new backdrop in the modern landscape."
The ads have some understated humor, calling Ivory "meticulously scented to smell exactly like soap" and pledging that "when dirt changes its formula, so will we." Five TV commercials will begin air in a handful of cities. P&G didn’t disclose other details, including when ads will begin airing and how much it’s spending on the campaign.
Some of the marketing details are still being worked out, but the team is going back to Ivory’s history for ideas. There could be an updated repeat of an early 20th century call for consumers’ ideas on new uses for Ivory. Soap carved into figurines also will be featured, as in early advertising.