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  The Great Whitewash   The Great Whitewash  Paul Lukas  
         
 
The Great Whitewash Check out the toothpaste section at your local drug store or supermarket and you'll find that the Colgate portfolio features a veritable blizzard of whitening products.

To wit, a quick survey will reveal:

- Colgate Whitening with Tartar Control
- Colgate Tartar Control Plus Whitening
- Colgate Sparkling White
- Colgate Platinum Whitening
- Colgate Sensitive Plus Whitening
- Colgate Total Plus Whitening

 
Don't get me wrong – I'm all for consumer choice, not to mention whiter teeth. But this product line strikes me as confusing at best, redundant at worst. The first two toothpastes on the list are virtually identical, at least based on their product names, and the next two seem equivalent as well – could you really blame someone who found himself scratching his head in confusion while surveying these product offerings?

Compounding the problem is the fact that Colgate has given these products a series of extremely similar slogans. One of the toothpastes is billed as being "For Sparkling White Teeth"; another is "For Clean, White Teeth"; and a third is "For Sparkling, Healthy White Teeth." Can you guess which one goes with which toothpaste?

Of course you can't. It all seems a bit befuddling, so I called Seamus McBride, Colgate's Vice President of Marketing, and asked him about the apparent overlap between the products. He dismissed my concerns and said the real issue was that Colgate was providing a "targeted approach" to marketing – precisely the sort of catchy but nebulous buzz term that marketers love to toss around. And just what does Colgate's "targeted approach" entail? "It means that if you want to control tartar and also want whiter teeth, there is a product for you," McBride explained. "If you want sensitivity and want whiter teeth, there is a product for you. And so on." It's not clear why anyone wouldn't want to control tartar, or why they wouldn't want whiter teeth – especially since Colgate Total Plus Whitening combines all of these benefits, plus several others, into one product – but McBride held fast to his notion of mixing and matching various benefits into assorted toothpastes.

Since McBride apparently had no problem distinguishing among Colgate's various whitening products, I posed a simple question to him and Suzan Harrison, Colgate's Vice President and General Manager for Oral Care: After reading them those virtually identical slogans mentioned earlier – slogans that they no doubt signed off on and maybe even had a hand in developing – I asked if they could tell me which one went with which product. "Sure we can," said Harrison, who then sheepishly added, "but, well, we do have all the packages here in front of us." The tone in her voice made it evident that she understood my point. In fact, she'd just made it for me.

It doesn't have to be this way. For proof, just check out Colgate's longtime rival, Crest, whose product line contains only two whitening toothpastes: Crest Extra Whitening and Crest Baking Soda & Peroxide Whitening. No indistinguishable slogans to wade through, either. Then again, Crest is focusing its whitening efforts not on toothpastes but on Crest Whitestrips, essentially a home version of a professional whitening job. Originally sold exclusively via Crest's website but now arriving on retail shelves, the strips are pricey – $44 per kit – and it's hard not to feel dorky when wearing them on your teeth. But here's a news flash: They actually work. After going through the 28-day Whitestrips regimen, I can honestly say that my choppers are significantly whiter and brighter, which now that I think about it, is more than I can ever recall saying about a whitening toothpaste. In fact, an informal poll of acquaintances reveals that very few people have had positive experiences with whitening toothpastes, although most folks said they were willing to keep buying them just for the psychological boost. (Or as one friend of mine explained, "It's probably not making my teeth any whiter, but I figure it's keeping them from getting any yellower.")

 
In any case, whitening products currently comprise the biggest segment of the oral care category in the US, amounting to 33% of toothpaste sales in 2000 – a 19% gain over the previous year – which helps explain why Colgate and Crest have become so whitening-obsessed. And why is the whitening segment suddenly so hot? Colgate's McBride, with characteristic insight, said, "We think the reason for the growth in whitening toothpastes is..." – drumroll, please – "...that consumers want whiter-looking teeth."

Now there's some razor-sharp analysis – no doubt another example of that "targeted approach" to marketing of which McBride is so fond. But here's something he might want to consider the next time he's developing a toothpaste slogan: Consumers don't just want whiter teeth – they want product lines that make sense.    

[4-Jun-2001]

 
  
  

Paul Lukas, former marketing columnist for Fortune magazine and author of Inconspicuous Consumption: An Obsessive Look at the Stuff We Take for Granted (Crown, 1997), deconstructs the details of consumer culture so you don't have to. He also writes about brand histories for FSB magazine, American travel for Money, and sports uniform design for for The Village Voice.

     
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