I’m Dreaming of an Ivory Christmas…

…just like the ones I used to know. Well, it’s hard not to be cynical when so many illusions of purity in life are revealed for their fantasy. The first big crisis of belief for many of us as we grow up is, of course, Santa Claus. Then usually following quickly after are the Easter Bunny, then the Tooth Fairy, then Reaganomics….

But not Ivory Soap! Say it isn’t so! It was first sold as White Soap in 1879, then branded Ivory Soap in 1883. Ivory was not Procter & Gamble’s very first product, but it was the company’s first true brand. The rise of this institutional brand and its fall from grace closely follow the turbulent trajectory of Western Civilization over the same time. The purity of the Ivory brand has been on a steady decline since it first boasted of being “99-44/100% Pure!”

Of course, I’m joking. Nevertheless, Ivory’s brand history does follow the trajectory of national brand strategy over the last 100 years. The purity of its brand promise has declined as the market has compelled its brand owners to compromise its values. The last two years especially have seen an ill-advised attempt to reinvent the brand as ironically hip—both retro and modern in its simplicity. Yet in this decline I will still try to find hope, as it is Christmastime, and it’s important to be hopeful (I guess).

Christmas Snow
But let’s get the Christmas and Ivory associations out of the way. First, there’s this charming 1912 Christmas Ad:

Next, there’s Ivory Snow. This soap-flake version of Ivory was popular in the first half of the 20th Century for washing dishes and clothes. In fact, Ivory flakes and bars were advertised as the one soap for all cleaning occasions.

So it’s not a big stretch to use Ivory Snow as, well, snow. Ivory enthusiasts sprinkled Ivory Snow on their Christmas trees and other decorations to simulate indoor snow. It also had the added benefit of being easy to clean up—it even aided in the clean up.

More recently, people with too much time on their hands have been using Ivory to produce “flocking” for their trees and decorations. This is a simulation of wet snow that starts out wet and dries for a clumpier, wet snow effect. A good recipe is here.

Ivory Snow flakey laundry detergent is still sold today, but there’s even a more fun way to make snow from Ivory—and it involves a microwave! Make sure you have a big enough plate, or use only a quarter of a bar. Microwave the Ivory bar, or segments, for 60 to 90 seconds. What you’ll get is an airy, foamy, dry concoction that is about 20 times the size of the dry bar you started with. Crumble that up and sprinkle it like snow on all your Christmas decorations.

Back to the story…
The spark for this lengthy diatribe occurred only a few weeks ago when I grabbed a fresh bar of soap out of the plastic-wrapped grocery ten-pack. After unwrapping the paper wrap, I noticed the soft-edged rectangle felt different in my hand. It looked to be the same length, but it was narrower. The brand experience, over 100 years old, was immediately tainted forever in my mind and soul. In this season of giving, P&G took away .5 ounces from the original 4.5 ounces.

Brands keep disappointing me. I don’t believe in the purity of Santa Claus anymore, especially because the big guy became who is today by shilling for Coca-Cola.

Ever hopeful as I am, though, I know brands can be used for good as easily as they can be used for evil. (Okay, I’ll grant you, it takes a little more effort.) Sad to say, Ivory has been a victim of its own iconic success. It’s not easy to reinvent yourself when you’re already the purest of the pure. But when it slipped to number three behind Dove and Dial, I guess something had to be done.

So, a rebranding campaign last year and a bold ad campaign this year hoped to revitalize the tired brand.

I originally thought the new branding was influenced by the trend toward generic packaging and another national brand stooping to private label’s level, however fast that level is rising. But thanks to a rare “Beauty Bundle” Ivory ad from the 1950s and the astute brand observers at UnderConsideration.com, it appears that the new logo is as much an homage to a 1950s design as it is a new direction.

Does Purity Equal Floating?
When my brother told me there was no Santa Claus, I started questioning everything. As a young boy, when Ivory told me it was so pure that it floated, I wondered: Does “floating” really prove “purity”? And does purity of product mean a cleaner clean?

Ivory’s first slogan in the 1890s—“It Floats!”—was not necessarily boastful. It was just a point of differentiation. Often the two claims of floating and purity were separate, and the floating claim would precede the purity claim.

But, over time, the claims were joined together, and the floating-equals-purity connection was made permanently, suggesting causality. Of course, it’s small air bubbles in the soap that make it float. Today’s slogan is: “Keep it pure, clean & simple.”

Ivory’s progression over the last century reflects the history of many brands and the progression of advertising strategies of each era. From mass marketing, brand promises, points of differentiation, appeals to simplicity, brand extensions, modernizations, returns to heritage, etc. etc. etc., through cycles of economic prosperity and decline.

Of course, cleanliness is next to godliness, as well, but the 20th century advertising industry’s ungodly, misguided obsession for the cleanest hands, whitest socks, and the greenest lawns is a topic for another time. But finally, I just wish the soap photo on the plastic wrap for the new diminished bars would represent the new shape, at least to be more honest about the change. And maybe P&G will realize the error of its ways and return to the fuller shape, so on future Christmases, I won’t have just be dreaming of past Ivory Christmases, “…just like the ones I used to know.”

Hope among the ruins
Like I said at the beginning, since it is Christmastime, I am duty-bound to find hope among the ruins. My suggestion then, is to just buy Dove, which has been, after all, a symbol of peace and hope for centuries, and, as a brand, offers hope to many young women with an ambitious Self-Esteem improvement campaign.

Wishing All…
Peace and Hope
During the Holidays!

Ron

BONUS LINKS:

A brief history of P&G.

Consumer Reports – Other Packaging “Gotchas”

1920s Ivory Ad – “The Best Taste Is the Simplest Taste”