Walk into a Walmart, Target, any chain drug store in your neighborhood or corner bodega for New York City residents, and chances are you̵[ads1]7;ll find an Ivory Soap bar, or a pack of 10 bars for under $5, on the shelf.
Invented nearly 150 years ago, this iconic bar of soap has become part of Americana largely by advertising its two strange virtues: “It Floats” and it’s “99+44⁄100% Pure.”
The original product is a simple, white, mildly scented bar soap with the name “ELFENSEN” etched into the script. Impressively, it has stayed exactly that way for 143 years – except for the addition of an Aloe-scented variety, and is still around.
The longevity of ivory soaps flies in the face of a notoriously fickle market for personal beauty products where new trends can appear and disappear in the blink of an eye.
So why has Ivory Soap stood the test of time? One theory is because of its clever advertising and branding. Ivory soap packaging famously, and relentlessly, displays the qualities of purity and buoyancy.
“It’s brilliant execution,” said David Placek, founder of Lexicon Branding, a branding expert who has helped name popular consumer products such as “Swiffer,” “Blackberry” and “Dasani.”
“Just think about it. How many other soaps can you think of that exhibit a characteristic analogous to ‘It Floats?'” Placek said. “I can’t think of another one. It makes you remember that because it also makes you think of other soaps that don’t flow.”
Because Ivory Soap’s slogans have remained consistent and endured for over a century and through generations of consumers, they have seeped into the subconscious, Placek said.
“Even if you haven’t used ivory soap, you know about it and remember it,” he said.
Ivory Soap is the brainchild of Procter & Gamble. Not the huge multinational consumer brand conglomerate that it is today, but by two individuals – Harley Procter (son of P&G founder William Procter) and James N. Gamble (son of P&G’s other co-founder, James Gamble).
It was at the end of the 19th century, a period when river bathing was widespread among large sections of the population. Now imagine losing your grip on a bar of soap when you’re waist-deep in murky water.
But what if there was a bar of soap that could float?
An AdAge article about Ivory Soap’s invention explained how Gamble at the time was trying to create a new type of gently formulated soap. The R&D process inadvertently created a batch of soap that was found to float because air bubbles were trapped inside.
Gamble, according to P&G’s website, recognized that the “liquid soap” could revolutionize the washing experience in more ways than one.
He initially thought that the liquid soap could be used for both laundry and dishwashing. Over time, the bar of soap became primarily a bath soap.
Naming the soap was another story.
According to P&G legend, Harley Procter heard the same word “ivory” while attending church and thought it perfectly suited the new soap’s look and feel, and both men adopted “Ivory Soap” as the name.
P&G launched the soap in 1879 and hyped it not just as a bar of soap that floated, but for its purity.
That claim, according to the company, hinged on a study of the soap by chemistry professors at the request of the inventors. One study showed that the soap had only a small amount of impurities – 56/100 percent – of a non-soap material.
So they decided to play it up in Ivory Soap’s commercials, rounding it up to create its other iconic tagline – “99 and 44-100% pure.”
P&G claims that while they continue to innovate their Ivory Soap, the product is still made with a simple formula free of dyes and parabens that is meant to gently cleanse the skin.
However, it has expanded the brand to other products.
In the 1950s, according to the AdAge article, P&G launched a light dishwashing liquid under the Ivory brand, followed by liquid hand soaps in the 1980s and moisturizing body washes in 1996 with the introduction of Ivory Moisture Care. Today, the Ivory personal care portfolio also includes baby care products, hair and body washes and deodorant.
Ivory soap has become so iconic that in 2001 P&G donated a collection of its Ivory Soap artifacts to the Smithsonian Institution, including its earliest advertising and a bar of unused soap from the 1940s.
Lexicon Branding’s Placek said Ivory Soap is a product way ahead of its time. “It was ‘clean’ before clean, pure and simple products became as popular as they are with consumers today,” he said.