The burden of history: branding lessons from Pears Soap

Soap Stories Part 1: the oldest brand in the world.

Months ago, what is ed the Differ began a post called “the History of Branding in 10 Soaps”. But as the list grew, information pills he realized there was way too much brand mangers could learn from the world’s oldest branded products. So in the first installment: the lily-white pedigree of the world’s first brand: Pears transparent soap.

Pears’ transparent soap – Unilever (WikipediaOfficial Site)

Lesson 1: Differ on the shelf

Pears transparent soap was invented in 1789 by London barber Andrew Pears who had a wacky idea that went something like “what if I use that crazy new ingredient glycerin to create soap?” The result: a new soap that looked different from other soaps – an orange-coloured but translucent bar – that he made even more different by forming it into the distinctive oval shape it still bears.

Now, note that Pears wasn’t the first soap in history. As a matter of fact, we humans have been making soap since Babylon – that is, almost as long as we’ve been making beer. Nor is “Pears” the first name used to market a specific kind of soap: for example, “Bristol” and “Marseilles” were well-known, and tightly controlled varieties of soap from guilds in those respective towns since the 16th century. Nor is it the first to patent a specific formula.

But Pears was the first to take that set of product differences and build them into “the world’s first registered brand and therefore the world’s oldest continuously existing brand.” Which brings us to…

Lesson 2: Differ in customer brains.

1899 ad: It's all about aspiration

But product differentiation alone doesn’t explain Pears longevity; glycerin-based soap is not exactly new or unique anymore. The “differs” have to go much deeper than that.

Pears is still around today not because it is a superior product, but because people still buy it. And they buy it because they recognize it, remember it, and have a personal story to tell about it.

Feel free to read that again branders. I’ll wait.

Pears was the first product in history to put together the essential ingredients for modern brands: identity (customers could recognize it), differentiation (customers could remember it), and affinity (product became part of customer’s culture and networks).

And how does that happen? It’s called brand management – and wouldn’t you know it? Pears also had the world’s first brand manager, Thomas J. Barratt who joined his father-in-law at the helm of Pears in 1865. He pioneered systematic brand advertising – combining distinctive imagery with frequently repeated slogans like “Good morning. Have you used Pears soap?”

But more importantly, he was keenly sensitive to making Pears more than just soap; it had to become a status symbol…

Lesson 3: help them Differ

Another racist 19th century ad.

But the biggest milestone in branding history wasn’t about product (easy to match or beat),  or advertising (Barratt didn’t invent it or monopolize it). It was this: the realization that a brand can become bigger than product or marketing when it helps people differentiate themselves.

In the case of Pears, all early advertising was carefully tuned to nurture the impression that people of taste, cultivation, and sophistication chose Pears – and so should you. Barratt tapped into a number of Victorian cultural narratives that helped him make the point – including the idea of colonialism as a “civilizing” influence on the rest of the world, which led to some frankly racist advertising like the “white man’s burden” ad above.

Which is why brand managers need to…

Lesson 4: learn to Differ over time

But as Barratt noted in 1907, the brand builder needs to adapt to cultural changes that affect how a product’s story is perceived over time:

“Tastes change, fashions change, and the advertiser has to change with them. An idea that was effective a generation ago would fall flat, stale, and unprofitable if presented to the public today. Not that the idea of today is always better than the older idea, but it is different. (emphasis mine)

But the last lesson is to make sure you change over time in the RIGHT WAYS.

Lesson 5: stay true to your brand owners (customers)

In 2009, Unilever created a furor among long time customers by changing the formula of Pears.

This offended brand sensibilities in two ways:

1) “Purity”: customers perceived Pears as being more simple and natural than other soaps, but the new formula changed the list of ingredients from eight pure-sounding elements like Rosemary Extract and Natural Rosin to a list of 24 including such nasty-sounding stuff as “Etidronic acid, Tetra Sodium EDTA, BHT, Cl 12490, Cl 47005”.

2) Smell: the new formula was described in the Facebook protest page in deeply unflattering terms (see excerpts below).

Here is a great blow-by-blow critique from an enraged fan.

Eventually, the protest led to Unilever backpedaling and compromising, but not before creating their own New Coke fiasco.

Brand managers. If you are ever tempted to believe that you own your brand, please bookmark this page and read these quotes to yourselves:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *