Will Triclosan Controversy Damage Colgate Total Brand?

Earlier this week, Angela Pollock ditched Colgate Total toothpaste after using it for about 15 years and bought Crest Pro-Health instead.

Pollock, a 57-year-old sociology teacher in Knoxville, Tennessee, had just learned that Colgate Total contained triclosan, an antibacterial chemical linked to cancer-cell growth and disrupted development in animals.

“If Colgate is that lax in putting this kind of chemical in their product, I don’t think I’ll buy other Colgate-Palmolive brands,” Pollock said.

Total is a tiny percentage of Colgate-Palmolive Co.’s sales, but it’s inextricably entwined with the Colgate brand so the triclosan controversy could inflict long-term damage, said Michael Stone, who runs Beanstalk, a New York-based brand-licensing agency owned by Omnicom Group Inc.

“This isn’t the kind of thing that just blows over,” he said.

While Colgate has said Total’s approval in 1997 followed a rigorous Food and Drug Administration process, Bloomberg News reported earlier this week that the agency relied on company-backed science and withheld toxicology studies on triclosan, which were released only this year. Since the story’s publication, consumers have e-mailed Bloomberg News to ask if the toothpaste is safe and have taken to social media. Colgate, meanwhile, has fired off almost 50 Twitter posts so far in response to questions about and criticism of Total.

‘Health Benefits’

“Consumers around the world choose Colgate Total because of the important, proven health benefits it provides in fighting gingivitis,” Tom DiPiazza, a company spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement. “Its efficacy and safety have been affirmed by regulators in the U.S., the EU, Australia and Canada based on 20 years of scientific reviews. Colgate Total is part of a full range of toothpastes we offer to meet differing consumer needs.”

Shares of the New York-based company fell 0.3 percent to $64.21 yesterday in New York and are down 1.5 percent this year.

Nancy Hirsch, a 44-year-old mom who lives in Brooklyn, once laughed at her husband for using Tom’s of Maine toothpaste, a Colgate brand that advertises itself as natural. Then she heard her brand, Colgate Total, contained triclosan. She plans to stop using Total immediately.

“If there’s even a chance something’s a health risk, I don’t want to take it,” she said.

Dentist Balks

Unlike Procter & Gamble Co., which sells an array of cleaning, personal and beauty products, Colgate’s identity is closely tied to oral care. As such, the company has spent years developing a relationship with dentists. Amid a growing drumbeat of warnings about triclosan in recent years, some have stopped recommending Colgate products to their patients.

Dr. Elliot Davis, 56, a Manhattan dentist who has been practicing for close to 30 years, said he stopped recommending Colgate Total to patients in about 2011, when he heard that triclosan, also used in temporary cement for crowns, was coming under scrutiny in Europe.

“Some of the toothpastes had removed it, and one company was staunchly defending it,” Davis said in a telephone interview yesterday, referring to Colgate. “I started to avoid products that had it.”

In a statement yesterday, the American Dental Association’s Council on Scientific Affairs said it will continue to closely monitor and evaluate existing and new scientific information on triclosan as it becomes available. The ADA also recommended that individuals continue to follow FDA recommendations on the use of oral health care products that contain the chemical. The FDA’s November 2013 Consumer Update states that the FDA does not have sufficient safety evidence to recommend changing consumer use of products that contain triclosan at this time.

Activist Pressure

Activists, meanwhile, are pressuring Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other retailers to eliminate products with triclosan, which is also used in hand soaps. Next month Wal-Mart and Target Corp. meet with suppliers in Chicago at the Beauty and Personal Care Products Sustainability Summit, where they’ll evaluate the environmental and social impact of their wares.

“Colgate is generally a well-regarded brand,” said Ted Marzilli, CEO of BrandIndex, a research firm that tracks brand perception. “Usually top-tier brands can weather a crisis like this provided they don’t step into it a second and third time and that they are honest about it. If news comes out that they weren’t being truthful, then they will be in trouble.”

Ultimately, Colgate will probably bow to pressure and remove triclosan from its products whether the company believes it’s dangerous or not, said Jack Russo, an analyst at Edward Jones in St. Louis, who recommends holding the stock.

“It’s almost like the facts don’t matter,” Russo said. “It’s perception. It’s how customers and consumers think about your brand, and Colgate really has strong brand equity. They’ve built that up over time. They’re not going to let something short-term in nature destroy that real quickly.”