Manufacturers seem to have decided that the fastest way to your wallet is through your oral cavity. They're out to invent a better mouth trap, and in drugstore after supermarket after convenience shop, shelves overflow with the results. The flood of new pastes, gels, sprays, strips, brushes, flosses, washes, pills, picks and you-name-it, each guaranteed to whiten, brighten, sweeten or protect, has now become a deluge. To walk down the toothpaste aisle at the drugstore today is to behold a marketing executive's dreams.
Take toothpaste. In a much simpler time, Americans made do with a handful of products, choosing from among Colgate's invisible shield, wonder-where-the-yellow-went Pepsodent and a small number of competitors -- when they weren't using tooth powder or plain baking soda and water. Then came fluoride and flavors and exotic gels and the occasional speckled paste. In 1999 alone, companies added 49 new toothpastes to the existing array of tubes.
If that was the flood, here's the deluge: So far this year, the number of new toothpastes -- meaning new brands, flavors, functions or packaging -- is a jaw-dropping 96. And that's just a microcosm of what's happening in the entire oral care category.
The mouth has become a gaping profit center that every consumer-goods giant is chasing.
"They realized people are willing to fork over $40 on a regular basis for products like these," said Tom Vierhile, executive editor of the new-products database Productscan Online. "I don't think anyone knew this was possible before -- they were used to selling tubes of stuff for $2, $3, $4. It was right under their noses."
Literally. The efforts of companies to push ever-fancier oral care solutions, from the lowly breath freshener to glamorous teeth whiteners, have sent sales in the category up 23 percent in the past five years and turned it into a $4.8 billion gold mine in 2003, according to market research firm Euromonitor International of Chicago.
And manufacturers are by no means letting up, even though sales of many oral care products have softened in the past year from the torrid pace of 2001 and 2002. In the past 18 months, the big players in the industry have been researching new technologies and moving into new product lines, often by acquiring smaller brands.
Oral-B, for example, bought the small but well-known whitening toothpaste brand Rembrandt. Oral-B, of course, is a maker of toothbrushes and other dental devices -- and that's exactly why the deal was attractive.
"It's an easy and quick way for us to get into that category," said Michele Szynal, a spokesman for Oral-B, a division of razor giant Gillette. "It's a category that we think has room for innovation, like interesting delivery methods. There's more than flavor that will come out of this acquisition."
None of this would be happening without the enthusiasm of consumers, of course. Aging baby boomers are especially eager to snap up anything that will allow them to hold on to their beauty and youth. But there's a bit of a debate in the oral care fraternity about which came first: consumer demand or marketing muscle. Diane Dietz, general manager for oral care products for Procter & Gamble, said the dramatic changes in the industry stem from "people's obsession with really trying to have a great smile -- a perfect smile." Companies like P&G, she said, are filling that burgeoning need.
On the other hand, people couldn't have developed that desire out of thin air, said Gary Price, chief executive of the Dental Trade Alliance, an Alexandria trade group. "Somebody had to tell them that they didn't want yellow teeth," he said.
Whatever the genesis of the oral care explosion, it's clear now that companies and consumers are bound up in an escalating match of development and demand that will likely last for years to come, with constant pushing and purchasing of whatever is new, new, new.
Whiter as Better
It's hard to overestimate the impact that one subset, teeth whitening, has had on the entire oral care industry. In the late 1990s, whitening became a phenomenon of professional dental care. With dentists filling fewer cavities thanks to the wide use of fluoride in water, doctors' offices began looking more to cosmetic treatments, and they found the profits irresistible.
It also began to get out that Hollywood stars weren't all born with those perfect white teeth we've admired in the pages of InStyle magazine, and the dental professional was only too happy to take the credit -- and offer average consumers a way to the same blinding smiles.
This was way beyond braces. Whitening meant $400 treatments with patients enduring hours of bitter-tasting peroxide gel in a molded plastic tooth guard stuck to their teeth. But some -- the vain, the affluent -- were eager to sign up.
Consumer products giants couldn't help but notice.
"A couple of really smart companies said, 'You, too, can have really beautiful teeth,' " said Szynal of Oral-B, and an at-home industry was born. Crest launched its Whitestrips treatment first, in 2001, and even at $30 to $40 the product flew out of stores. Colgate followed with Simply White brush-on gel, at a lower price, and even more people jumped on the trend. To have so much activity and excitement in the oral care aisle was a revelation, and the category quickly became a marketing extravaganza.
"As we saw some, particularly larger, companies get into the consumer side of this, they started using marketing techniques that they have with other products," said Price of the Dental Trade Alliance. That meant huge media campaigns. In 2001, P&G alone spent $45 million educating consumers about at-home whiteners, according to Euromonitor.
Once the genie was out of the bottle, whitening became the function every product had to have. Toothpaste, toothbrushes and even chewing gum promised brighter, whiter pearls in your mouth. And Hollywood helped again, this time in the form of reality television shows such as "Extreme Makeover" that showed, sometimes graphically, what can be done to make a smile perfect.
Such shows have pumped up professional services for cosmetic dentistry, too, but the spillover has pushed sales of convenience whitening products to more than $500 million -- from nothing just a few years ago.
Next, Breath Strips
Whitening products weren't the only oral care category to get the attention of shoppers. In late 2001, Listerine PocketPaks brought a totally new method of breath freshening to a business that had become mundane. After all, it wasn't enough to have white teeth, you had to have fresh breath, too.
Listerine's small blue, paper-thin strips came in cute little plastic dispenser packages that didn't get sticky in your purse, dissolved on the tongue instantly and ignited sales immediately. Consumers adopted the breath-strip habit quickly, and more flavors of PocketPaks followed.
But Listerine didn't have this innovation to itself for long. By 2003, other consumer products companies, and even private-label manufacturers, were in the breath-strip business too. That's the nature of oral care right now: It's considered such a hot category that as soon as one company develops something novel, the rest of the pack piles on. Being first to the breath-strip business was a benefit to Listerine, of course, which sold $166 million worth of PocketPaks last year, according to Euromonitor. But innovation doesn't always offer the help that companies hope. It has hardly helped the manual toothbrush business, for example.
As electric toothbrushes became increasingly popular in the late 1990s, makers of manual toothbrushes dusted off their own R&D departments and introduced a whole new array of angles, bristles and functions to compete. But these souped-up brushes, which are priced higher than old-style low-tech models, began hitting the market around the same time that cheaper, battery-operated electric toothbrushes came out for as low as $4 and $5 apiece. Given the choice between a manual toothbrush and a power brush for just a dollar or two more, many consumers chose the motor over the newfangled manual styles.
The result has been a steady erosion in sales of manual toothbrushes: They were off 10 percent last year alone. Euromonitor predicts sales of manual toothbrushes will fall an additional 24 percent by 2008.
But as consumers switch to electric toothbrushes, find new ways to whiten their choppers and worry more about their breath, consumer products giants are dreaming up the next miracle mouth cures. The latest ideas tend to revolve around flavor, portability, ease of use and funky packaging.
"It's a really fun time," said P&G product manager Dietz. "We're limited only by our own creativity."
Dietz said Crest's newest toothpaste launch, Whitening Expressions, was the result of a delayed flight that left Dietz and the company's head of oral care research and development, Shekhar Mitra, stuck in an airport for hours. They started talking about how boring toothpaste flavors are. "We said, it's mint, mint and more mint," Dietz recalled. "We came up with the idea of doing a flavor line."
If toothpaste tasted really good, the two managers figured, then maybe people would brush longer, which gave both the R&D and the marketing departments at P&G an outline for action. The new toothpaste line came out last fall in three flavors: cinnamon, fresh citrus and herbal mint -- unusual in the world of mass-market toothpaste, though somewhat familiar to users of all-natural toothpaste products such as Tom's of Maine.
One of the great advantages of marketing oral care products is that they are aimed at hygiene activities that most people know they should be doing better, or more often. Any product that helps people achieve those goals with less work and more enthusiasm is ripe for marketing.
Oral-B has just brought out a textured tooth wipe, packaged individually, that slides like a glove onto one finger and can be swiped across the teeth without water. It's designed for a between-brushing cleanup, which the company's Web site touts as the perfect solution for the office, on a date or when you've just spotted someone cute across the room. Likewise, Oral-B's latest electronic innovation is the Hummingbird, a flossing tool that Szynal said makes flossing more convenient and less messy.
"It's just about giving people the tools to do what they know they should be doing," Szynal said. "People are looking for easier ways to take care of their teeth so they don't have to feel guilty."
That also explains the growing trend of piling multiple functions onto one product. Putting whitening agents in regular toothpaste got the ball rolling, but now there is a tube of Aquafresh toothpaste with a dental-floss dispenser built right into the cap. And coming soon is Colgate Max Fresh toothpaste, which has strips of breath freshener in the paste.
The company previewed the product in an earnings statement earlier this month, explaining that "the breath strips dissolve instantly upon brushing, releasing an extra rush of breath freshening power."
Flourish or Perish
With so many new products arriving on shelves, companies have the challenge of breaking through all the noise in the drugstore or supermarket aisle. For their part, retailers are putting increasing pressure on manufacturers to get results fast or get out.
"You've got to not only have a great idea, you have to execute great, too," said Vierhile of Productscan Online. "The amount of time retailers are giving these products has shrunk."
That's pushing marketing executives to be more creative. Part of the solution, said P&G's Dietz, is knowing the target consumer for a particular product intimately and understanding what that person wants and likes. Whitening Expressions, with its novel flavors, was aimed at buyers who pay close attention to "experiences" -- people who open a shampoo to smell it before purchasing it, she said. But the research didn't end there.
"We know what TV shows they're watching, what magazines they're reading, where they're prone to be receptive to this message," Dietz said. "Since they are experiential and sense-oriented, we devised a program with [specialty retailer] Yankee Candle. It's not some mass message."
But in the mass market, Whitening Expressions also tapped into an "experience" theme by putting scratch-and-sniff patches on its toothpaste boxes and in magazine ads, so consumers could get a whiff of the flavors.
Pity the smaller companies that don't have the money for scratch-and-sniff technology.
"We have two big behemoths, Colgate and Procter & Gamble, outspending us 10 to one and having a 70 market share between them," said Bruce Tetreault, product manager for Arm & Hammer oral care products for Church & Dwight Inc. "Truly, for the smaller guys, it's finding an niche and owning it. Whereas for Crest and Colgate, it's 'we have a lot of money, let's blast out our products.' "
Arm & Hammer has focused on its unique baking soda ingredient and heritage, and has carefully reserved its R&D money for innovations that it can back up with science as well as marketing dollars. In February, the company launched its Enamel Care toothpaste with liquid calcium and publicized results of studies that show the product actually remineralizes the surface of teeth, making them smoother and glossier.
"We need that kind of breakthrough news, we need that technology there, because we know we can't outspend or out-shout Crest and Colgate," Tetreault said.
A Focus on Health
There is some concern that consumers are getting confused by all the new products and claims in the oral care business, which may account for the softened sales of the past year. Even those steeped in the dental industry confess to sometimes feeling a little overwhelmed by all the choices.
"I went into Rite Aid, I went down the aisle and I said, 'God, I don't want anything that sparkles, I don't want anything that fizzes in my mouth -- where is the regular stuff?' " said Price of the industry's trade group. "Maybe the market is saturated."
But manufacturers say a lot more can be done. They are especially interested in recent research that has shown a connection between poor oral health and potentially devastating systemic health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and even premature birth.
"This is getting pretty basic -- that if you don't clean up your mouth, you might make yourself sick," Price said. "It's just dawning on people that this is really important. We'd forgotten that 150 years ago an abscessed tooth could kill you."
That's an easy message for marketers to sell, too. Szynal of Oral-B said health will be the next push in the oral care business. "At Oral-B we are going beyond whitening and going to 'whole mouth' health," she said.
Industry experts say another obvious frontier is to use the newly energized oral hygiene and beauty regimen as a way to deliver medications. The mouth makes a promising delivery method for medicines and nutritional additives because it has so many capillaries and veins close to the skin, potentially allowing for the easy absorption of helpful substances into the bloodstream. It's a wide-open avenue for innovation in the coming years, experts say.
And oral care products are appealing vehicles for medication for another reason: Consumers are motivated to use them because doing so makes a difference in how they look. People may not be inclined to eat food with healthful additives, or even supplements that make grand promises, because they can't really see a benefit in the short term.
"You're using a different scale to measure," said Ken Milligan, principal of science and technology for Health Strategy Consulting, a Providence-based nutrition consulting firm. "For many of the neutraceuticals, you're using a longevity time frame -- you won't know you did it right until you're at the end, until you get sick or don't. But you know if you're getting uglier."
And if you don't know, the marketing people will be sure to tell you.