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Robert R. Taylor dies at 77; entrepreneur of hygiene who introduced Softsoap liquid soap

Robert R. Taylor, an entrepreneur of hygiene who made hand-washing a tidier, less slippery job by introducing Softsoap, the first mass-market pumpable liquid soap that rendered the traditional bar obsolete, died Aug. 29 in Newport Beach, Calif. He was 77.

He had complications from prostate cancer, said his daughter Lori Lawrence.

Knowingly or not, millions of Americans have sprayed, squirted and rubbed Mr. Taylor’s products onto themselves during their daily bathing routines. He created and sold more than a dozen companies — and an array of foamy, fragrant products — on his way to becoming a scrappy titan of the bath-and-beauty industry.

In the 1980s, after buying Calvin Klein’s cosmetics division, Mr. Taylor and his colleagues made news by rolling out the erotic ad campaign for Obsession perfume that featured a bare-chested Kate Moss. Its vaguely menacingly tag­line — “Between love and madness lies Obsession” — led to parodies as well as criticism that marketers had gone dirty.

The campaign proved wildly successful and made Obsession one of the top-selling fragrances. It was Mr. Taylor’s biggest coup since 1979, when he began pumping Softsoap into the market.

Robert R. Taylor died Aug. 29 at 77. (AP Photo/Courtesy Taylor Family)

A former Johnson & Johnson salesman, he struck out on his own in 1964 and formed Village Bath Products, later renamed the Minnetonka Corp. The classic American entrepreneur, he started out small, hand-rolling balls of soap, but was determined that he could compete with hulking conglomerates, such as his former employer and Procter & Gamble.

One day, he had an epiphany.

“I thought how ugly bar soap is, and how it usually messes up the bathroom,” he told the New York Times years later. “I thought, ‘Why not a high-quality liquid soap that comes in an attractive bottle?’ ”

He described Softsoap — dispensed with the gentle press of a miniature pump — as “soap without the soapy mess.” Its arrival was heralded by a staggering $6 million advertising campaign. Even more staggering was a go-for-broke gamble by Mr. Taylor that became a twice-told tale of business school.

Knowing that bigger companies would be able to copy Softsoap’s pump and then out-
produce, out-market and outsell him, he decided to outsmart them. Mr. Taylor pre-ordered 100 million pumps from the few manufacturers who made the device, according to the Harvard Business Review, effectively locking up the manufacturing capacity and giving himself a jump on capturing brand loyalty.

Such spunk prompted the New York Times in 1986 to describe the Minnetonka Corp. as “the mouse that roared.”

Mr. Taylor told the Times that “the best way for an entrepreneur to compete in today’s marketplace . . . is to avoid competition — or at least find ways to circumvent it.” Besides Softsoap, his ­noted products included Check-Up, the first anti-plaque toothpaste. When he was developing Sesame Street bubble bath, he declined to do test marketing because “every kid knows what Sesame Street is.’’

Mr. Taylor credited Robin Burns, whom he had hired away from Bloomingdale’s fragrance department, with being the “driving force” behind the Obsession campaign. He confessed that he was pleasantly surprised when Obsession for men proved to be more popular than the women’s formula.

“Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than smart,” he told the Times. “Sometimes even a blind squirrel finds a nut.”

Robert Ridgely Taylor was born Sept. 1, 1935, in Baltimore and grew up in Cincinnati. He showed an early gift for salesmanship when he sold a homing pigeon to a pet store — “numerous times,” according to a statement from his family.

He received a business degree from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in 1957 and a master’s degree in business administration from Stanford University in 1959.

When Mr. Taylor founded Village Bath Products, he marketed his wares as boutique-
worthy delicacies. His artisanal soaps, fancier than the ingotlike bars mass produced by larger companies, were shaped like fruits and candy bars.

For many years, Mr. Taylor ran his business from Chaska, a Minnesota city near Minnetonka that gave the company its name. In 1987, Colgate-Palmolive bought Village Bath and Softsoap. Two years later, Unilever purchased Minnetonka Corp., including the Calvin Klein perfumes, for $376 million.

In California, where he lived in recent years, his final ventures included Graham Webb International, a line of salon-quality hair products, and Monterey Bay Clothing Co.

His first marriage, to Alice
Bovard-Taylor, ended in divorce. Their son, David Taylor, died in 1984. Survivors include his wife of 32 years, the former Mary Kay Meneough of Newport Beach; two daughters from his first marriage, Lori Lawrence and Karen Brandvold, both of Denver; and six grandchildren.

Mr. Taylor often brought his madcap work home, his daughter said, and tirelessly tested his soap formulas in the family kitchen. “If you had a father who was a mechanic, he could come in smelling like gasoline and oil,” Lori Lawrence recalled. “Our dad would come in reeking of soap.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.


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