The Sound And The Fluoride

Toothpaste isn't one of those products most people gave a lot of thought to--at least until recently. Now, a host of new, high-priced brands and line extensions have whipped the once stable business into a lather. The pitch to consumers: pastes that look and feel different and promise cleaner, whiter teeth as well as fewer cavities.

The newcomers caught the traditional giants napping. Procter & Gamble Co., No.1 in the U.S. with its Crest toothpaste, and Colgate-Palmolive Co., the worldwide market leader, focused so much on therapeutic benefits while ignoring the cosmetic pitch that they let rivals steal a march on them. That has led to a redrawing of the market-share lines in this $1.5 billion business. P&G, for instance, has seen a decline of as much as 10 points from its 40% share of the 1980s.

HIGH-PRICED REMBRANDT. Tiny Church & Dwight Co. was the first to sneak up on the sleepy giants in 1988. It grabbed 10% of the market with its venerable Arm & Hammer brand name, taking advantage of some dentists' recommendations to brush with baking soda. Den-Mat Corp., which previously sold its products directly to dentists, four years ago launched Rembrandt whitener at sky-high prices. Today, a 3-oz. tube of Rembrandt sells for more than $6.

Then Unilever PLC's Chesebrough-Pond Inc. unit really shook things up when it introduced Mentadent in October, 1993. The tooth-cleaner, dispensed from a bulky double-chambered pump, mixed baking soda with peroxide to produce fizz, and supposedly cleaner teeth. Mentadent didn't even look like toothpaste and at $3.69 cost almost twice as much as other premium brands. But it quickly caught on, helped by a blitz of TV ads. Chesebrough pumped a hefty $65 million into its initial launch and is still spending "quite heavily," says Marketing Vice-President Bill Ecker.

Mentadent is now the No.3 toothpaste. It snagged 11.5% of the market in the 52 weeks ended May 28, figures research firm Information Resources Inc. "We went and broke the rules," says Gary R. Fraser, category director of Chesebrough's oral-care business.

The industry giants have begun to respond. Both Crest and Colgate have come out with their own versions of baking-soda toothpastes, a subcategory that now accounts for 30% of the market. Colgate recently mailed out 11 million samples of its new Colgate Baking Soda & Peroxide brand and has already won back market share. Arm & Hammer also offers peroxide versions of its baking-soda best-seller. Colgate launched its Platinum whitener a year ago, and Aquafresh is scoring with a lower-priced whitening product.

NOT ONLY CAVITIES. The big brands are also betting that promises of better health can still win sales. On July 25, P&G launched Crest Gum Care, with a reformulated version of stannous fluoride, the ingredient that won Crest the first endorsement from the American Dental Assn. in 1960. P&G claims that Gum Care can reduce gingivitis and bleeding of the gums by an average of 20% and 33%, respectively. Trade sources say the company is spending $40 million to back the new gold-boxed paste.

Colgate is seeking approval from the Food & Drug Administration to add triclosan to toothpaste. It already uses the antibacterial agent in an overseas brand called Colgate Total, sold in 90 countries as long-lasting protection against cavities, plaque, tartar, and gum disease. The FDA won't comment on the application.

Meanwhile, Warner-Lambert Co., purveyor of Listerine mouthwash, will soon launch a toothpaste by the same name. The company is mum on the details, but retailers and rivals say it will spend $27 million to introduce a premium-priced product with the black Listerine logo on a blue package similar to its Cool Mint mouthwash.

More than anything, the toothpaste wars demonstrate the power of advertising and image. After all, many dentists say that brushing with any good paste and flossing are the main keys to dental health. Want a dentist's advice on which toothpaste to buy? "Get one with some kind of fluoride, and that's on sale," says Dr. Max A. Listgarten, professor of periodontics at the University of Pennsylvania and member of an FDA plaque-advisory committee. "That's how I shop for toothpaste."

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