Ivory – can P&G’s heritage brand stay afloat?

August 25, 2014

In reading the Wall Street Journal’s recent article “Floating an Idea: Would P&G Sell Ivory Soap?” my immediate reaction was, “how could P&G even consider such a thing?” After all, Ivory is so iconic and is the one brand in P&G’s entire brand portfolio that established the well-known consumer brands marketer —Procter & Gamble. Over 135 years ago, James Gamble and Harley Procter, sons of each of P&G’s founders, respectively invented and named the pioneering soap that floats. Ivory is the one brand that single-handedly has helped to make P&G the marketing genius it is today. P&G’s marketing principles have been taught around the globe, both internally and externally. They are the envy of many corporations and are included in every business school’s tool chest as impressionable case studies.

Perhaps it’s my being at the tail end of the baby boomer generation having grown up with Ivory that I’ve always associated the Procter & Gamble Co. with Ivory Soap more so than with any of its other big name, big share and big revenue/profit producers such as Tide, Dawn, Swiffer, Olay and Always. Why? Because when I mention Ivory, it is a brand that everyone has not only heard of, but also associates with P&G. I would also make an educated guess that the Ivory brand has a strong brand equity value by having both high, unaided awareness (every brand’s dream) and a name that has a net worth way beyond its current share of market and sales revenue indicators.

Once a leading brand representing the largest part of P&G sales, Ivory now has sales of approximately $112M – a small portion of P&G’s total global estimated sales of $83 billion. Clearly, Ivory is no longer the shining star in P&G’s brand portfolio. How could a brand that was once the foundation and root of a company now find itself on the verge of extinction?  Several branding insights and questions come to mind:

  1. Ivory was a leader because it was a novelty at the time – the soap that floats took a manufacturing process (whipped with air) and developed a positioning (99.44% pure) that resonated with consumers. This was a great brand story and one that resonated with consumers. Who wouldn't want to wash with a soap that was 99.44% pure – a benefit that one could physically see through its floating attribute? Did P&G rest on its laurels by not continuously thinking about ways in which this brand would evolve with the changing habits of its consumers?
  2. As smart a marketer as P&G is, it was caught off guard. It was not in tune with consumers changing habits and was not prepared for the impact that liquid hand soaps and body washes would have on the cleansing category. P&G saw sales decline and did not know how to keep this iconic brand relevant. It tried fighting the fight by launching its own version of liquid hand soaps and body washes. Perhaps being late to market with “me too” products was a reason why Ivory couldn't sustain itself?  Or was it a lack in pipeline innovation that accelerated its downfall? It was innovation that once gave Ivory a significant share of market and brought it into many homes, and it was the lack of innovation that resulted in its decline.
  3. Did Ivory lack the internal attention it deserved? Was P&G launching, buying and growing so many other brands (current estimate at 180) that it neglected the brand from which the company was founded? Were R&D and pipeline resources diverted to other brands and categories at the expense of Ivory?
  4. Three years ago, P&G put an Ivory rejuvenation team and plan into place, but with not much success. A two-in-one hair and body wash, a new logo and packaging and an extensive social media campaign were not enough to restore life into this classic brand. Perhaps these efforts were not in alignment with Ivory’s equities and consumer needs? Were these efforts too small for a brand that achieved success by being so uniquely different?

So, I still find my self in such disbelief that an iconic brand like Ivory could soon either be sold or disappear in its entirety. If some likely competitor should purchase Ivory will they be able to resuscitate it?  It is easy for me to play Monday morning quarterback and play out that P&G could’ve, would’ve and should’ve scenarios, but it seems like it’s a little too late for that. Flagship brands are not immune to the threats that plague all brands. Ivory poses a few important branding lessons for all of us:

Keeping a brand afloat requires a lot of attention and resources. It means keeping one eye looking behind you and one in front to keep ahead of the competition and to meet consumers needs. Can you think of any other flagship and/ or iconic brands that were once the shining star within a corporation’s brand portfolio and that have since either been sold or disappeared entirely? Have any of the brands that have been sold experienced brand rejuvenation by being under someone else’s watchful eye?


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