Capping the decline in the toothpaste market

After long-term sales erosion from price promotions and electric brushes, major toothpaste brands plan to reverse the trend. David Benady reports

A round of relaunches by the UK’s biggest toothpaste brands over the coming months will attempt to stem a dramatic decline in sales over the past year caused by price discounting and the rise of electric toothbrushes, which require less paste.

Colgate-Palmolive will ignite the battle this month when it rolls out Colgate Sensitive, the US personal care giant’s answer to GlaxoSmithKline’s market-leading Sensodyne.

GSK will relaunch Sensodyne later in the summer, though denies this is in response to the launch of Colgate Sensitive. Meanwhile, wildcard Crest – a strong player in the US – is to be revitalised in the UK by owner Procter & Gamble (P&G) with a relaunch focusing on its beauty benefits (MW last week). Crest will run its first ad campaign for some years this summer in an attempt to turn around years of poor performance. Sales have dropped by almost half, to about &£10m, since 1997.

These moves come as overall toothpaste sales decrease at an alarming rate. Last July, they actually increased in value by about 0.2 per cent on the previous year. But by January, sales had plummeted by 2.3 per cent compared with the previous 12 months. By the middle of May, the decline had accelerated by a devastating 3.2 per cent slump over the year to about &£273m.

Information Resources (IR), which provides these figures, says the decline is down to the growing use of electric toothbrushes – mainly battery operated – which have smaller heads and require less paste. Two-for-one and three-for-two price promotions have also reduced sales value. It is estimated that 40 per cent of toothpaste is sold on promotion.

Toothpaste is considered a “low interest category” – people tend to grab it off supermarket shelves with little prior thought. Colgate has built up a strong brand presence over the decades, but the market has exploded, with dozens of brand extensions aimed at different segments. One source says: “The frustration the buyers have is that manufacturers have put in a lot of effort without increasing the value of the market.”

An indication of the problems facing smaller brands is the decision by Londis to drop Unilever’s Signal because of faltering sales.

Whitening products are the fastest-growing sector according to IR. With the publicity given to teeth-whitening treatments undertaken in the US by the likes of actresses Catherine Zeta Jones-Douglas and Julia Roberts, people are encouraged to believe they can whiten their smiles by using the teeth-whitening pastes offered by the major manufacturers.

But the manufacturers have been criticised for misleading consumers with the “whiteners” tag. A spokeswoman for the British Dental Association (BDA) says calling them whiteners “is a misnomer”, since in accordance with EU rules, the pastes are only permitted to contain tiny amounts of the hydrogen peroxide bleach usually associated with whitening teeth. In fact, few brands in the UK contain any tooth whitener.

In the US, manufacturers are permitted to use larger doses of the bleach (which can cause users some discomfort), but Europeans have to make do with a very weak version or none at all. Consumers may well assume these brands are capable of whitening teeth when in reality they are just stain removers, says the BDA spokeswoman. Still, removing stains does in effect make teeth appear whiter, so the descriptor is technically acceptable says another source.

A Colgate spokesman says: “We have data showing that regular use of Colgate Sensitive over a six-week period significantly reduced staining – the area and intensity – compared with an ordinary fluoride toothpaste.” A GSK statements says: “Professionally conducted clinical trials carried out on GSK products demonstrate that they improve the whiteness of teeth by stain removal. They may not have a chemical bleaching action on the teeth but they can improve appearance by two to three shades, an accepted definition of whitening.”

In reality, dental care has been a great success story in recent decades, and toothpaste manufacturers and dentists have done such an effective job at reducing tooth problems – largely through fluoride in toothpaste – that they have also reduced the need for their own services. That’s why dentists are so keen to sell premium services such as expensive white fillings. Some even supplement their incomes by illegally offering teeth whitening treatments containing high levels of hydrogen peroxide. A few have been warned by trading standards officers that this is an offence, though some continue to ply their illicit trade. The BDA is expecting a change in EU rules soon, to permit higher levels of bleach in treatments and toothpastes.

The “sensitive” toothpaste brands have also scored considerable success in recent years and GSK, for instance, has sunk a lot of ad spend into Sensodyne. One supermarket buyer says Colgate Sensitive will give Sensodyne “a good kicking”.

Another insider praises P&G’s plan to relaunch Crest on a beauty platform, pointing to recent publicity in the women’s press that having whiter teeth makes you look younger. The observer says it offers a way out of the price-cutting conundrum.

So, just as it seems the manufacturers have squeezed all the life out of the toothpaste sector, it may be P&G that leads the way to its rebirth. However, what might put the smiles back on manufacturers’ faces is the EU changing its rules and allowing an increased amount of teeth-whitening bleach in toothpaste.

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