A popular soap with two strange claims to fame — “Swimming” and “99+44⁄100% Pure”

A popular soap with two strange claims to fame -- "Swimming" and "99+44⁄100% Pure"
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Invented nearly 150 years ago, this iconic bar of soap has become part of Americana, mainly by advertising its two strange properties: “It floats” and it’s “99+44⁄100% Pure.”

The original product is a plain white, mildly scented bar of soap with the name “ELEPHANT DRIVE” engraved in script. Impressively, it has not banned the addition of the Aloe flavored variety for 143 years and is still available.

Ivory soap’s longevity flies in the face of the notoriously fickle market for personal beauty products, where new trends can come and go in an instant.

But why has ivory soap stood the test of time? One theory has to do with its clever advertising and branding. The Ivory Soap packaging famously and relentlessly showcases cleanliness and buoyancy.

“It’s brilliant execution,” said David Placek, founder of Lexicon Branding, a branding expert who helped name such popular consumer products as Swiffer, Blackberry and Dasani.

“Think about it. How many other soaps can you think of that have a similar feature to ‘Sorry.'” I can’t think of any others. It makes you think of it because it also makes you think of other soaps that don’t float.”

Placek said that because Ivory Soap’s slogans have remained consistent and resonated with consumers for more than a century and across generations, they have seeped into the subconscious.

“Even if you haven’t used Ivory Soap, you know about it and you remember it,” she said.

The need for floating soap

Ivory Soap is the brainchild of Procter & Gamble. Today, it is not a giant multinational consumer brand, but a conglomerate of two men – Harley Procter (son of P&G co-founder William Procter) and James N. Gamble (son of another P&G co-founder, James Gamble).

It was the late 19th century, when river swimming was prevalent among large sections of the population. Now imagine losing a bar of soap as you sink up to your waist in murky water.

But what if there was a bar of soap that could float?

Advertisement for Ivory Soap from Procter and Gamble, circa 1879.  (By Photosearch/Getty Images)
Moment AdAge article On the invention of Ivory Soap, Gamble explained how he was trying to create a new type of mild soap at the time. The R&D process accidentally produced a batch of soap that was found to be floating because air bubbles were trapped inside.

Gamble recognized that “floating soap” could change the washing experience in more ways than one, according to P&G’s website.

At first I thought that floating soap can be used for both laundry and washing. Over time, bar soap evolved primarily into bath soap.

Naming the soap was another story.

According to P&G legend, Harley Procter came across the word “ivory” while in church and thought it perfectly matched the look and feel of the new soap, and the two men came up with the name “Ivory Soap”.

Cincinnati, Ohio, 1897 advertisement for Ivory Soap by the Procter and Gamble Company.  (Photo by Jay Paull/Getty Images)

P&G introduced the soap in 1879, not only as a floating bar of soap, but also because of its purity.

According to the company, this claim was based on research on the soap by chemistry professors at the request of the inventors. One study found that the soap contained only a small amount of impurities — 56/100 percent. a non-soap-containing material.

So they decided to play it up in an ad for Ivory Soap, rounding it off to create their second iconic slogan – “99 and 44-100% pure”.

P&G says that while it continues to innovate with Ivory Soap, the product is still formulated with a simple formula free of dyes and parabens to gently cleanse skin.

However, it expanded the brand to other products.

Ivory Soap Advertising Poster (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
Reportedly in the 1950s AdAge article, P&G introduced light dishwashing detergent under the Ivory brand, followed by liquid hand soaps in the 1980s and moisturizing body washes in 1996 with Ivory Moisture Care. Today, Ivory’s personal care portfolio also includes baby care products, hair and body washes and deodorant.

Ivory soap has become so iconic that in 2001, P&G donated a collection of Ivory Soap artifacts, including its first commercial and an unused soap package from the 1940s, to the Smithsonian Institution.

Lexicon Branding’s Placek said Ivory Soap was a product ahead of its time. “Clean, pure and simple products were ‘pure’ until they became popular with consumers today,” he said.

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