Clinica Dental del Vinyet – Adapting Listerine to a Global Market
MORRIS PLAINS, N.J. — Walking into the Listerine “stink lab” is like stepping into a gigantic human mouth.
A gigantic human mouth with terrible, terrible breath.
The stink lab (or odor chamber, as Johnson & Johnson prefers to call it) is where the consumer products manufacturer cultivates the germs it needs to test a growing list of mouthwash varieties.
There is the alcohol-free Listerine Zero, popular in Muslim countries where spirits are forbidden; Green Tea Listerine, made specifically for Asian markets; and most recently Listerine Naturals, a mouthwash geared toward Americans’ obsession with nonsynthetic ingredients that was introduced this year in the United States and could expand overseas.
SOURCE: The New York Times
The 135-year-old mouthwash brand had not changed its four core germ-killing ingredients in more than a century. But lately, the company has been forced to think outside the bottle, as Americans continue to spend more cautiously than they did before the economic collapse of 2008, and are always on the hunt for the next best thing.
CreditRich Schultz for The New York Times
Johnson & Johnson has tripled its varieties of Listerine in the United States to nine since 2006, when it bought the brand from Pfizer as part of an acquisition of its consumer health care unit, according to a spokeswoman, Carol Goodrich. The company has also steadily increased the different kinds of mouthwash it offers overseas, adjusting its original formula to add benefits like whitening or gingivitis defense.
The recession, tepid spending and slow population increases have helped flatten sales growth in the United States, according to James Russo, the senior vice president for global consumer insights at Nielsen. Consumer products manufacturers are increasingly looking to bring in dollars from overseas, from developing economies with growing middle classes in areas like Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.
The need to rethink old brands reflects a new reality, as companies like Johnson & Johnson are increasingly aiming for the local cultures, appetites and customs of these new markets.
“The bigger and more penetrated that they are in the U.S. and in developed Western markets, the more important it is for them to push on these developing markets and emerging markets for growth,” said Matt Miksic, an analyst with Piper Jaffray.
In the stink lab in New Jersey, it takes a team of scientists to create new flavors and varieties that will “kill germs that cause bad breath,” as its longtime slogan goes. The team collects 20 to 30 milliliters of saliva — about two full bottles of nail polish worth — twice a week from employees who work in the building. (Ms. Goodrich said that the employees were paid for their fluids, but declined to say how much).
The lab is kept between 91 and 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit to resemble a real human mouth where bacteria can flourish. Linger inside, and the smell can stay on one’s clothes for hours.
“At this point, I don’t consider it gross anymore,” said Tara Fourre, Listerine’s principal scientist, who has worked at the lab for more than a decade. “But when I go home, my family thinks it’s gross because they can smell it on me.”
Early ads suggested customers apply Listerine to their scalp to clear up dandruff, or to put the antiseptic in their “cuts, scratches and small wounds.”
If Listerine has more recently localized its uses, so, too, has it widened its audience. No longer do its ads try to scare women into buying mouthwash, lest their bad breath ward off potential suitors (“always a bridesmaid” was a popular early ad slogan) or even their families (“It makes you unpopular with your own children”).
While sales of the company’s original antiseptic rinse remain strong in the United States, most of the other variations have slumped, according to data from IRI, a market research firm based in Chicago.
Listerine as a whole still dominates the $1.5 billion United States mouthwash market, but it has lost some ground to retail brands and competitors like Crest from Procter & Gamble. Sales have declined since 2006, according to data from Euromonitor. Last year, Listerine represented 44.4 percent of the total mouthwash market, down from 58.7 percent in 2006.
Listerine also dominates the market globally, although it also faces stiffer competition overseas. Worldwide, Listerine’s market share slipped to 36.1 percent in 2013, from 40.2 percent in 2006, while brands like Colgate Plax from Colgate Palmolive and Crest gained more of a foothold.
Jessica Spano, a spokeswoman for Crest, said the company had also expanded in Latin America, Asia and Europe. Sales of Crest doubled worldwide from 2006 to $234 million in 2013. Last year, global mouthwash sales increased to $4.8 billion, from $2.7 billion in 2004, according to data from Euromonitor.
Johnson & Johnson hopes that a push into developing markets can help offset those declines, and international markets have helped push the company to come up with new variations of its mouth rinse.
While some of its overseas customers may be buying mouthwash for the first time, Johnson & Johnson’s task is trickier in mature markets where consumers are more demanding. In Europe, for example, consumers want their mouthwash to solve more complicated problems than just bad breath. To meet that demand, Johnson & Johnson released an advanced gum treatment rinse in Britain and Ireland last year.
“The biggest problem is if you don’t understand consumer needs,” said Alison Lewis, chief marketing officer for Johnson & Johnson. “If you don’t do that well, you don’t win.”
According to Nielsen data, the middle-class population is projected to double in Africa and the Middle East by 2030. In North America, 49 percent of consumers “live comfortably or spend freely,” according to Nielsen’s data, compared with 64 percent in Asia Pacific. Consumers in developing markets are also generally more willing to spend a premium for new, innovative products.
In August, Procter & Gamble announced it would dispense with about half of its more obscure product lines, potentially including things like Zooth, a children’s oral care brand, and Trojan, a Southeast Asian laundry detergent, and focus on its most lucrative brands, like Tide.
Kimberly-Clark, a major global manufacturer of diapers, announced last year that it would pursue a spinoff of its health care business, and has recently led a marketing push to destigmatize Depend, its adult undergarment line for incontinence.
In its 2013 annual report, Johnson & Johnson listed Listerine among a dozen major brands that would help propel the company’s growth.
Mr. Lister’s original mouthwash promises to clear up bad breath by killing almost every germ in your mouth. Ms. Fourre says that Listerine’s widening group of cosmetic variations should kill at least 99 percent of germs, and the lab performs a “critical kill time” test on new formulas. The test exposes bacteria to Listerine for 30 or 60 seconds, depending on how long one must swish it around.
That means the lab needs a constant stream of fresh mouth germs, where the foul smell lets staff members know that the growth process is working.
“We need to keep them happy before we’re ready to kill them,” Ms. Fourre said.
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