Invented nearly 150 years ago, this iconic soap cake became a staple of Americana, largely by advertising its two quirks: “Floating” and “99%+44-100% Pure”.
The original product is a no frills, plain white, lightly scented bar soap with the name “IVORY” inscribed on it. Impressively, it has stayed exactly that way for 143 years – except for the addition of an Aloe-scented variety, and it’s still around.
The longevity of ivory soap is fleeting in the face of a notoriously volatile market for personal beauty products where new trends can pop up and disappear in an instant.
So why did Ivory Soap stand the test of time? One theory stems from its smart advertising and branding. The Ivory Soap packaging famously and relentlessly exudes purity and buoyancy.
“This is a great app,” said David Placek, founder of Lexicon Branding, a brand expert who helps with naming popular consumer products like “Swiffer,” “Blackberry,” and “Dasani.”
“Think about it. How many other soaps can you think of that offer a similar feature to ‘float’?” said Placek. “I can’t think of another. It makes you remember this because it also makes you think of other soaps that don’t float.”
Placek said Ivory Soap’s slogans have infiltrated the subconscious as they have remained consistent and endured across consumers for more than a century and generations.
“Even if you haven’t used Ivory Soap, you know and remember it,” she said.
The need for floating soap
Ivory Soap is the invention of Procter & Gamble. Major multinational consumer brands are not what they are today, but consist of two people: Harley Procter (son of P&G co-founder William Procter) and James N. Gamble (son of P&G co-founder James Gamble).
The late 19th century was a time when river bathing was common among large sections of the population. Now imagine losing your grip on a bar of soap while submerged in muddy water up to your waist.
What if there was a bar of soap that could float?
According to P&G’s website, Gamble realized that “floating soap” could revolutionize the washing experience in more ways than one.
He originally thought that floating soap could be used for both laundry and dishwashing. Over time, bar soap became primarily a bath soap.
Naming the soap was another story.
According to P&G legend, Harley Procter stumbled upon the word “ivory” on her way to church and thought it fit the look and feel of the new soap perfectly, and both men adopted “Ivory Soap” as the name.
P&G launched the soap in 1879, exaggerating not only as a floating bar of soap, but also for its purity.
According to the company, this claim was based on a study on soap by chemistry professors at the request of the inventors. One study showed that soap had only a small amount of impurities — 56/100 percent —
and Non-soap material.
So, they decided to revive it in their commercial for Ivory Soap and rolled it up to create their second iconic slogan — “99% and 44-100% pure”.
While P&G continues to renew its Ivory Soap, it maintains that the product is still made with a simple dye- and paraben-free formula that aims to gently cleanse the skin.
However, it has expanded the brand to other products as well.
Ivory soap has become so iconic that in 2001 P&G donated a collection of Ivory Soap artifacts to the Smithsonian Institution, including their first commercial and an unused bar of soap from the 1940s.
Lexicon Branding’s Placek said Ivory Soap was a product ahead of its time. “Pure, clean and simple products were ‘pure’ before they became as popular with consumers as they are today,” he said.
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