Are you a Beauty Bar or Soap that floats?

Soap Stories 2: “purity” vs. “anti-category” brand positioning.

Yup, mind after highlighting lessons from the oldest brand in the world,  Beg to Differ is still focusing on plain old, boring soap – today comparing two more classic brands: Ivory and Dove. But we’re convinced that there’s gold in them-thar-bars. Pure brand… or maybe anti-brand… gold. Which works better for you? Read on.


Look at me. Look at your product. Now back to me…

What “product” are you selling? A company? An idea? A service for business? Or maybe like me, professional services that are hard to put a box around? Whatever it is, you’ve got a market, you’ve got competitors, and you’ve got customers who are going to be hard to reach and harder to convince.

It’s a basic truth that your brand’s position in your market – or more accurately, in your customer’s brain – is going to be critical to your success or failure. But how do you decide which direction to go?

That’s where soap comes in.

The history of soap has  good news and bad news for anyone building a brand:

  • The good news: There is no single right way to sell a product in any category. As the world’s oldest branded product category, purveyors of soap have been at the branding game a lot longer than you, and believe me, they have tried every positioning angle possible – many of which actually work! The examples below are just two among many.
  • The bad news: Once you choose a positioning option, the real work begins. Sorry lazy branders, history also tells us that the brands that succeed are those who actually do the hard work required to reinforce their positions over time – which means, they dedicate time, money, and effort to both building customer expectations over time and making darned sure they fulfill those expectations!

So as you read the two brief examples below (and examples in additional Soap Story posts to follow ask yourself: 1) Could an approach like this help me establish a clear spot in my customer’s brain as different and valuable compared to my competitors? And more importantly, 2) Do I have the drive, chutzpah, and hustle to actually keep this real over time?

Option 1: Be Soap that Floats

Ivory Soap – P&G (Wikipedia / Ivory History)
Current positioning line: “The Soap So Pure it Floats!”

The approach: originally floated into the market back in 1879, and imprinted on the public’s mind since 1891 with the two words “It Floats”, Ivory is one of the world’s most familiar brands. It was also the product that launched the Titanic fortunes of the Proctor & Gamble empire – a company which has written, and re-written the manual for consumer product branding over the years.

But what’s so revolutionary about the term “It Floats”? Big deal. So does my rubber ducky.

“It floats” was a brilliant way of getting into human brains – so brilliant, it’s still being used more than a century later. First, it’s surprising, so you immediately notice it. Second, you remember it: the visual image it conjures up is unforgettable – and in the days when more people took baths than showers, floating actually mattered, so the mnemonic (memory) value was even deeper.

But most importantly “It Floats” is a simple metaphor for the purity of the soap – which is the “moral” of the Ivory story. The important idea is that ivory is the soap of soaps, the real deal, the most authentic expression of “soap-ness”

Becoming an Ivory brand: the Soap that Floats strategy.

This strategy is about trying to capture and own the idea that you are the purest, most authentic expression the “soap-ness” – or whatever-ness of your particular category. And this is the important part: implying that everyone else is just faking it.

But you can’t just come out and SAY that. If I said I was the most authentic brand strategist on the planet, you’d roll your eyes. I’d have to say something like “I really believe in brands” or “Speak human.”  But more importantly, I’d have to reinforce that idea over time.

Option 2. Don’t Be Soap at all. Be Beauty.

Dove Beauty Bar – Unilver (Wikipedia /
Current positioning: “Beauty Bar / Real Beauty”

When Dove launched in 1957, Ivory and dozens of other brands like Pears, Swan, and Lifebuoy were already dominating giant swathes of consumer mind-space. So how did they gain a foothold and get across the idea that they were new and different?

By not being soap.

I don’t mean they weren’t thought of as soap. They were – and still are. Any toiletry product in bar form that you wash yourself with is going to be called soap, no matter what you say or do.  But Dove realized very early that the soap battleground was not a field they could win, so they changed the battle by going after women only, and by calling their product a “Beauty Bar”.

Which obviously led consumers to ask the question in their mind: “Huh? What’s a Beauty Bar?” And of course, once they asked that, you were on Dove’s mental playing field.

Now, this idea of Dove being “non-soap” wasn’t just pulled out of the air. Technically, their new synthetic formula didn’t use any of the traditional soap ingredients. And they would gleefully tell you this, followed by studies that showed how “soap” dried your skin while Dove was “clinically proven to be milder for dry, sensitive skin than other leading soaps”.

The brilliant thing about this is how beautifully Dove has evolved from just a “Beauty Bar” into a brand that easily covers a range of Beauty products, and how Unilever has underpinned this with their equally brilliant Real Beauty campaign (which is worth an entire post of its own).

Becoming a Dove Brand: the Beauty Bar strategy

This approach works best in a category with multiple clearly defined brand players and positions. Your job is to find ways to prove that you are better / more effective / more relevant to a particular audience within that market. Dove chose women. And in doing so, they consciously excluded men from the brand conversation. You need to be just as ruthless.

Then, you need to find a clever way to position yourself in an adjacent space as a clearly different alternative. I’m not talking about “Blue Ocean Strategy” here (that’s another whole blog post). I’m talking about clearing the suds away from your corner of the tub. Southwestern Airlines did this for air travel. The iPhone did it for smart phones. It might also work for you.

But again, once you say it, it’s your job to make it real! Dove couldn’t call itself a Beauty Bar without a solid line of logic to prove it. And today, Dove couldn’t sustain the Real Beauty campaign without smart, consistent management of all aspects of their brand.

So how about you?

Are you a Soap That Floats or a Beauty Bar kind of brand? Does the question work for you? Are we full of suds here? Please, Beg to Differ! We do.

Leave a Reply

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