Every year, Colgate Palmolive Co. disperses troops around the globe to preach the mantra of oral care. Whether they squeeze toothpaste on neem sticks in rural India or push free brushes into the hands of 50 million schoolchildren worldwide, the goal is the same: convert the world to Colgate. No wonder the brand is synonymous with toothpaste in many emerging markets, commanding a market share of 80% or more.
Its numbers aren't quite so dominant in the U.S., but Colgate grabbed the lead over Procter & Gamble's Crest after launching Total toothpaste in late 1997. That time, guerrilla troops poured through dental offices to proselytize the U.S. Food & Drug Administration's approval of Total as the only toothpaste that reduces the gum disease gingivitis. The result? It's now the No. 1 toothpaste recommended by dentists.
Thanks to such relentless marketing, Colgate continues to chew up the competition. It accounts for more than one-third of all toothpaste sales in the U.S. while once-dominant Crest holds a 29% market share. Total, available in versions that whiten teeth and fight bad breath, is the jewel in the brand's crown.
Colgate has built its empire by tinkering with its formula to fit international tastes while promoting the basics of oral care with an evangelical zeal. It comes as cheap tooth powder in India, a chalky flavored paste in China, and a trendy gel aimed at high-growth youth markets. It is promoted at rock concerts, rural road shows, mobile dental clinics, schools -- and anywhere else people bare their teeth. What's consistent is the brand equity, says Barry Spelling, Colgate's president of global oral care. "It stands for trust and family and, increasingly, innovation."
EVOLVE AND CONQUER. In a straitened economic environment that saw a majority of brands decline in value, Colgate rose 3% to 4.57 billion, enough to put it in the 56th slot on the list of the 100 most valuable brands. In a sign that it is nurturing its other brands, which range from Mennen Speed Stick to Irish Spring soap, parent Colgate-Palmolive saw the value of its overall brand portfolio rise 5% to $14.36 billion. Archrival Unilever also saw a rise in the value of its brand portfolio, but it was a smaller 2% gain, to $37.85 billion.
In contrast to the success it has enjoyed in recent years, Colgate had long been the poor cousin to rival Crest in its home market. The P&G brand snagged the American Dental Assn. seal of approval for its fluoride toothpaste in the '60s and soared to market leadership. When cavities ceased to be a big issue by the 1980s, thanks in part to fluoridated municipal water, Crest was first to market with a plaque-fighting product. The next evolution for the aging American population was gum disease. "Crest missed the boat," says marketing consultant Jack Trout. "To be the king of tooth care, you have to evolve." To this day, Crest lacks a toothpaste that targets gum disease.
It's a lesson that Colgate has taken to heart. While the company continues to target dentists with Total, it's trying to exploit the latest dental trends. There's a line for sensitive teeth and a "2in1" liquid gel product aimed at younger mouths. It has licenses to produce Barney, Barbie, Star Wars, and Looney Tunes toothpaste. Then there's the growing roster of toothbrushes and dental floss. When it comes to marketing, meanwhile, Colgate takes what North American President Ian Cook calls a 360-degree approach of "touching consumers wherever they are." That means everything from plastering bus shelters with ads to sponsoring a contest with Blockbuster Video to pick which stars have the brightest smiles.
THE WHITE STUFF. These days, whiter, brighter teeth is the craze, and both companies are battling for dominance. Procter & Gamble bets it has the next big thing with Crest White Strips -- a $44 home whitening kit launched in May. The company expects to sell $200 million in the first year. "We think we're on the brink of a revolution with home whitening," says spokesman Bryan McCleary.
Good luck. Colgate already has several whitening products in its growing roster. And current consumer tastes could nip at Crest's confidence. In a midtown Manhattan drugstore, Mark Jackson recently rushed down the aisle and reached for a tube of Total. When asked why, he looked at the label and said, "It does everything -- clean, whiten, fight gum disease. I guess that's why they call it Total." For Colgate, that's bound to prompt a smile.
By Diane Brady in New York