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Listerine: Brand Profile

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Listerine is one of the world's best-selling consumer healthcare brands. Until comparatively recently it was the oldest and biggest brand in the OTC portfolio of drugs giant Pfizer. That business was sold during 2006 to Johnson & Johnson, who now control the brand worldwide. Listerine is by far the biggest-selling mouthwash with more than a third of the US market, almost twice the share of closest rival Crest mouthwash. Listerine's sales have continued to build on the back of a series of clever spin-off products which have extended the brand into other parts of the oral care sector.

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Brands & Activities

In its biggest market of the US, the Listerine brand name now covers a wide range of almost 30 different products. Its main segment remains mouthwash, with a selection of flavours centred around Original Listerine antiseptic, which is the only mouthwash endorsed by the American Dental Association. Unlike most of its competitors, Listerine uses alcohol to activate its breath-freshening oils, causing a tingling sensation. Some users were found to dislike this effect, and as a result Pfizer introduced a range of less intense flavours, such as Natural Citrus and Freshburst in 2002. Other flavours have followed, as well as alcohol-free Listerine Zero. There is also an even gentler Smart Rinse variant for kids. More recent innovations under Johnson & Johnson have included a Green Tea formulation for Asian markets and Listerine Naturals for the US, containing only non-synthetic ingredients.

The product has also faced increasing competition since the 1990s from breath-freshening gums and mints. As a result, in 2003, the group launched Listerine PocketPaks, which are translucent, ultra-thin strips which dissolve instantly on the tongue, followed by PocketMist spray. Pfizer also introduced Listerine Advanced mouthwash variants with added benefits such tartar protection, gum treatment, cavity guard or whitening action. More recently the range has been tentatively extended into toothpaste. The first attempt, Listerine Essential Care paste and gel, fared poorly and was phased out, to be replaced by a Listerine Whitening paste in 2013.

The brand is strongest in North America, although it is also available in many other global markets. According to IRI figures for the year to Aug 2014 (quoted in GHQ), Listerine and its variants had combined 41.9% share of the $1.4bn US mouthwash sector (down from almost 60% when it was acquired by J&J in 2006). P&G's Crest and Scope brands had 21.8%, while private label products had 14.5%. In the UK, Listerine has an even bigger lead, with around 50% share. Globally, share is around 35%, compared to under 10% for nearest rival Plax (from Colgate).

In 2016, J&J began transferring several remaining products marketed under the Reach oral care brand into the Listerine family. Reach dental floss is now sold in North America as Listerine Floss. It had already sold the Reach toothbrush brand.

The brand has experienced problems in some territories as a result of its alcohol content. Muslims are prohibited from using the product for that reason, and in a celebrated court case in 2005, an American driver claimed accidental drunkenness as a result of overuse of Listerine when she was found to be driving three times over the legal alcohol limit. Similar cases occur on a reasonably regular basis. Also in 2005, Pfizer was ordered to suspend US advertising which claimed that Listerine was as effective as floss in fighting tooth and gum decay. Ironically, the complaints came from Johnson & Johnson's McNeil subsidiary, then only a prominent maker of dental floss. A judge ruled the ads to be misleading and said they posed a public health risk because they undermined the message of dental professionals. A year later, Listerine was itself acquired by Johnson & Johnson.

Background

The product now known as Listerine was originally developed in 1879 by Dr Joseph Lawrence as a disinfectant for surgical procedures. He named the product in honour of Sir Joseph Lister, the English physician who had been among the first scientists to develop what was then a revolutionary theory that airborne germs spread infection.

In 1881, Lawrence sold commercial rights to Jordan Wheat Lambert, one of the founders of what would later become Warner-Lambert, who began producing it for general use in the US. In what was to prove a hugely beneficial arrangement, Lawrence negotiated an open-ended perpetual license to Lambert to market his product in return for a royalty payment. Later attempts by Warner-Lambert to break that arrangement were dismissed by US courts. As a result, more than 140 years later, Johnson & Johnson must still pay a royalty on every bottle sold. Around half that sum goes to the Lawrence family and its heirs but some of the royalty rights were sold to non-family members in the 1950s. A single share of the Listerine royalty, earning around $32,000 annually, came up for public auction in 2020 and was purchased for $560k.

Listerine was originally marketed for a wide variety of different surgical uses as well as oral hygiene. It was eventually made available for sale to the general public in 1914. Following the introduction of more effective surgical antiseptics, Lambert's son Gerard concentrated on marketing Listerine as an oral antiseptic. More conscious of the power of advertising than his father had been, Gerard Lambert eventually struck upon the idea of marketing Listerine as a cure for bad breath. Until then, no ordinary American had ever heard the word "halitosis" but Lambert's marketing for Listerine drummed it into the consciousness of every consumer, playing on fears of social or romantic inadequacy. "You yourself rarely know when you have halitosis," claimed the ads, "even your closest friends won't tell you." Or even simply "Don't fool yourself. Halitosis makes you unpopular".

Throughout the 1920s, Lambert Pharmacal ranked among the country's highest-spending advertisers, and sales rocketed. In the 1950s the brand was a pioneer in television advertising, but despite huge sales, remained more or less the only product on the market until P&G introduced Scope in the 1970s. Warner-Lambert attempted to fight off the new challenge by marketing Listerine as a preventative against colds and flu, until ordered to stop by the FTC in 1975.

Last full revision 29th March 2016

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