Colgate marketing: Then and now
When William Colgate began to see profits from his starch, soap, and candle business, he was grateful to one source: God.
William Colgate & Company, established in 1806, is one of the oldest brands in the United States. Now known as Colgate-Palmolive, the company was founded by soap maker and Baptist deacon William Colgate, who donated 50% of his company revenue to several religious organizations in Manhattan over his lifetime.
Colgate’s New York roots run deep. The company is older than Central Park (1858–1876), the Statue of Liberty (1886), and Times Square (1904). Colgate’s original headquarters were located on Lower Manhattan’s Dutch Street, now a laneway that’s home to a coffee shop, preschool, and some high-end residences.
Original Colgate headquarters at 6 Dutch Street in Manhattan, after Colgate moved its offices to New Jersey in 1910.
You may know Colgate for its toothpaste, but the company didn’t stray from soap until William Colgate died and left his son Samuel in charge. Colgate prospered for 69 years as a soap company before it released its first version of toothpaste, which was actually a powder in a jar.
In 2015, more than 200 years after its founding, Colgate became the only brand in the world purchased by more than half of all households. Keep reading to find out how Colgate got from point A to point B with more than two centuries of steady innovation, dental hygiene education, and thoughtful acquisitions that have allowed Colgate to keep up with shifting consumer demand.
Disclaimer: The Colgate-Palmolive company sells a variety of household, personal care, and pet products. For the sake of scope and brevity, this article is (mostly) about toothpaste.
Colgate brand timeline
William Colgate soap era
1783: William Colgate is born in Kent, England.
1804: William Colgate moves to New York City to become an apprentice for a soap-boiler.
1806: William Colgate launches his company as a starch, soap, and candle business in Manhattan at the age of 23.
1817: The first Colgate advertisement appears in New York newspapers.
1857: William Colgate dies and leaves the company to his son, Samuel Colgate.
Toothpaste era begins
1873: Colgate starts selling tooth powder in jars.
1896: Colgate opens its first research laboratory in Jersey City.
1896: Colgate starts selling toothpaste in collapsible tubes.
1908: Colgate adds ribbon to its tube to improve packaging.
1911: Colgate starts advertising through oral hygiene education, distributing two million tubes of toothpaste and toothbrushes to schools and dental hygienists.
1914: Colgate expands outside the U.S. for the first time, to Canada.
1920: Colgate continues its international expansion to Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa.
1927: Colgate begins advertising through such radio programs as The Palmolive Hour and Palmolive Beauty Box Theater until 1937.
1928: Colgate merges with Palmolive-Peet to become the Colgate-Palmolive-Peet Company.
1930: Colgate goes public.
1950s: Colgate adopts the slogan "It Cleans Your Breath While It Cleans Your Teeth", written by copywriter Alicia Tobin.
1953: Colgate-Palmolive-Peet becomes Colgate-Palmolive, the company’s current name.
1960: Crest by Procter & Gamble receives the American Dental Association’s Seal of Acceptance for its first clinically proven fluoride toothpaste, which temporarily unseats Colgate as the top-selling toothpaste in the United States.
1968: Colgate adds fluoride to its toothpaste.
1972: Colgate acquires Hoyt Laboratories, which later becomes Colgate Oral Pharmaceuticals.
1983: Colgate launches the Colgate Plus toothbrush.
1989: Colgate revenue supasses $5 billion.
1995: Colgate launches Sorriso toothpaste in Latin America.
1996: Colgate Bright Smiles, Bright Futures oral health education program expands to 50 countries.
1997: Colgate launches Colgate Total toothpaste in the U.S.
2006: Colgate acquires organic toothpaste maker Tom’s of Maine for $100 million.
2007: The UK Advertising Standards Authority tells Colgate to stop claiming that four out of five dentists recommend Colgate after an investigation shows the claim to be misleading.
2014: Forty million new households buy Colgate products.
2015: Colgate becomes the only brand in the world purchased by more than half of all households, with a global market penetration of 67.7%.
2018: Colgate launches the Colgate Smart Electric toothbrush.
2020: Colgate acquires Hello Products, maker of CBD toothpaste and other personal care products.
From ox hooves to burnt bread: A brief history of toothpaste
What came first, the toothpaste or the toothbrush?
If you guessed toothpaste, you’d be right. Egyptians are believed to have invented both by the year 3000 BCE, but they used a form of toothpaste to clean their teeth 2,000 years before they ever used a toothbrush.
You probably wouldn’t want to put ancient toothpaste anywhere near your mouth. The first toothpastes in Egypt were powders that contained the ashes of ox hooves, burnt eggshells, and pumice. Historians don’t know how Ancient Egyptians applied tooth powder, but they do know that powder over paste persisted well into the nineteenth century throughout most of the world.
In Britain, a common nineteenth-century recipe for tooth powder called for chalk, pulverized brick, and salt. Another recipe called for pulverized charcoal, while still another called for burnt bread. Finally, by 1900, an actual toothpaste with hydrogen peroxide and baking soda became available, but the paste wouldn’t surpass the powder’s popularity until after World War I.
Tooth powder vs. toothpaste: Colgate’s first antiseptic powders
So it’s no wonder Colgate started selling tooth powder, not toothpaste, in 1873. By then Colgate had expanded their personal care line to perfume and shaving cream, so it wasn’t a major leap for the company to begin selling tooth powder.
Colgate's “Antiseptic Dental Powder” was “endorsed by professors of chemistry in dental schools and recommended by leading dentists.” Four out of five dentists weren’t yet recommending Colgate, but the company’s endorsement strategy seems to be as old as their first dental hygiene product.
By the early twentieth century, Colgate’s dental powder was one of several “antiseptic powders” that exerted an “inhibitory action against the growth of bacteria”, as the 1905 magazine ad below claimed. The company’s dental powder was often sold in sample boxes alongside violet talc perfume and soap, both of which had their own antibacterial qualities.
Colgate had, however, released a toothpaste by then. Colgate’s Ribbon Dental Cream, invented by dentist Washington Sheffield, hit shelves in 1896. That same year, Colgate had opened its research lab in Jersey City, and its new ribbon toothpaste was one of the company’s first products to come out of it.
Just as important as the toothpaste’s antiseptic qualities was its taste. Before the invention of modern-day toothpaste, tooth powder just didn’t taste great. As this 1910 ad in The Ladies’ Home Journal notes, Colgate’s Ribbon Dental Cream “disproves the theory that a ‘druggy’ taste is necessary to increase efficiency.”
Can you imagine how difficult it must have been to brush a child’s teeth with tooth powder that tasted like medicine? Given that women were responsible for childcare and the purchase of personal care items in 1910, it’s no surprise Colgate would target its primary audience of mothers with messaging that stressed how easy it would be to convince their children to brush their teeth with better tasting toothpaste.
Teaching children to brush their teeth: Colgate’s oral hygiene education, 1911 vs. 1991
During the early twentieth century, it was common to see ads that stressed the importance of oral hygiene. That’s because tooth decay became a rampant public health problem during the last half of the nineteenth century when the price of sugar dropped and innovations in flour refinement led to softer foods. The softer the diet, the less saliva you secrete, the more plaque builds up in your mouth.
The thing is, the chemical compounds that prevent tooth decay weren't yet prevalent during the first part of the twentieth century. Fluoride was first added to toothpaste in the 1890s, but no credible studies had been conducted to prove its benefits; in fact, the American Dental Association criticized the use of fluoride as recently as 1937.
Colgate couldn’t claim that its toothpaste prevented tooth decay because, well, it didn’t. What Colgate could say, however, was that toothpaste promoted tooth brushing, which back then was thought to be sufficient for better oral health. In the absence of evidence that toothpaste could prevent cavities, dentists leaned heavily on recommending regular brushing to remove food particles and stimulate saliva production.
In 1911, Colgate embarked on a massive public health endeavor to teach children how to brush their teeth. Over two years Colgate sent 2 million free tubes of Dental Ribbon Cream to schools while arming dental hygienists with toothbrushes. With their Colgate toothbrushes in tow, these hygienists ran education sessions that taught schoolchildren how to properly brush their teeth.
At the same time, Colgate ran ads that promoted the school sessions to parents. The ads advised the parents to purchase Colgate Dental Ribbon Cream to keep up with tooth brushing at home, stressing that “children having seriously defective teeth take at least six months longer to complete the school course than those possessing good teeth.” (This claim is debatable, considering the education sessions launched in 1911 — and the ad below is from the same year.)
In 1991, 80 years after its initial public health campaign, Colgate re-launched its public education strategy with the Bright Smiles, Bright Futures program. After observing that children in poorer neighborhoods and in developing countries had higher rates of tooth decay, Colgate launched an international public education program that partners with schools, non-profits, and governments to provide free dental screenings, oral health education, and treatment referrals.
Part of Colgate’s oral health education for kids includes sustaining the attention of the very young with superhero cartoons that teach the process and science behind dental hygiene. Released in 2015 — the same year Colgate announced that more than half of all households in the world purchase Colgate-Palmolive products — this “tooth defenders” animated short now has more than 12 million views on YouTube.
Colgate’s public health education strategies in 1911 and 2015 have the same goal: Teach kids to associate oral hygiene with Colgate, and that’s the brand that will be top of mind when they purchase toothpaste as adults. Given that Colgate’s global market share of toothpaste was nearly 40% in 2020, it’s safe to say the long-term strategy has been succeeding.
Losing to Crest’s innovation win: Colgate’s fluoride miss
Before the mainstream use of fluoride in toothpaste, no one toothpaste brand could claim outright that they prevented cavities. While tooth decay ravaged the world for the first few decades of the twentieth century, dentists were aware of the growing need for such innovation as they begged people to brush their teeth and eat less sugar.
Then, in the 1930s, a series of studies proved beyond a doubt that fluorine in tap water could prevent cavities. While the American Dental Association would continue to deny the benefits of fluoride until 1937, the growing consensus in the scientific community was shifting in favor of the compound as a possible contender for better oral health.
In the 1940s, Procter & Gamble launched a research program to study ingredients that could reduce tooth decay. After years without much luck, P&G recruited dentist and chemist Joseph Muhler after seeing his research on stannous fluoride at several scientific conferences.
Luck would strike Muhler’s efforts at P&G when student William Nebergall accidentally baked one of his experimental concoctions overnight. The prolonged heat transformed a calcium phosphate abrasive into calcium pyrophosphate, which was more compatible with fluoride as a binding agent (previous combinations rendered fluoride inactive).
After the accidental discovery, clinical studies showed a 49% reduction in cavities among children between the ages of six to sixteen. In 1955, Crest with Fluoristan launched in test markets to much success. Procter & Gamble commissioned artist Norman Rockwell to create the first series of ads for toothpaste that could actually claim that it reduced cavities.
By 1962, Crest had become the top toothpaste in the United States, with Colgate falling to number two. To add insult to injury, Colgate couldn’t simply add fluoride to toothpaste the way Procter & Gamble had because of a patent. (Muhler developed his fluoride toothpaste at Indiana University, which held the patent for Crest’s formulation until 1975. Procter & Gamble paid royalties to Indiana University during that time.)
Colgate didn’t figure out how to add fluoride to its toothpaste until 1968. The loss of market share must have taught the company a lesson about innovation, because in 1972 Colgate acquired Hoyt Laboratories, which later became Colgate Oral Pharmaceuticals.
4 out of 5 dentists would recommend … most toothpastes
We’ve all heard the claim: four out of five dentists recommend Colgate.
When you heard the claim, maybe you questioned it as a passing thought before getting on with your day. In 2007, the UK Advertising Standards Authority investigated the claim much more deeply and concluded it was misleading.
Every year for several years, Colgate hired an independent market research company to gather data from dentists about their preferred brand of toothpaste — except that wasn’t exactly how the survey was structured. Dentists who were interviewed were allowed to select more than one toothpaste to recommend; four out of five times, Colgate was one of several they chose.
After an investigation, the UK Advertising Standards Authority concluded that the claim implied that four out of five dentists recommended Colgate over its competitors. To support the ruling, a spokesman for the British Dental Council said, “Dentists recommend toothpastes and other oral health products to their patients based on their knowledge of an individual’s oral health. More important than the particular brand of toothpaste, is what it contains and how often it is used.”
Meanwhile, in the United States, Colgate leaned heavily on consumer testimonials while continuing to claim that Colgate was the number one recommended toothpaste by dentists.
What you’ll see consistently over time with Colgate ads are the company’s heavy reliance on numbers, data, and dentist testimonials as a way to differentiate its products. Toothpaste as a category has always toed the line between health product and personal care, never quite knowing how to fit the mold of either category.
Notice how this sampling of Colgate ads uses a bifurcated messaging strategy to sell the consumer on two benefits: better aesthetic appeal and oral health.
Similar to most personal care products, Colgate has leaned heavily on listing ingredients as a form of credibility. It’s a signal we’re all familiar with through the rise of “natural” personal care products — which Colgate has recognized as a way to remain relevant among younger consumers.
Colgate’s enduring relevance through acquisitions
While fluoride has long been known as a safe and vital ingredient for oral health, the most recent “naturalist” movements of the early aughts has some people wanting fluoride-free toothpastes. While not all toothpastes marketed as “natural” are fluoride-free, the consumer demand for such products has been increasing for the last 20 years — which is why Colgate purchased Tom’s of Maine for $100 million in 2006.
At the time of the acquisition, the U.S. market for “natural” oral and personal care products was valued at $3 billion with a projected growth rate of 15% per year. Colgate no doubt knew the potential for growth when they purchased Tom’s of Maine, a leader in the natural personal care space that was founded in 1970 by Tom and Kate Chappell.
Colgate has been smart to allow Tom’s of Maine to retain creative control over its brand. You wouldn’t know that Colgate owns Tom’s of Maine if you checked out their Instagram account, which has more than 27,000 followers.
More recently in 2020, Colgate made its second acquisition of an alternative personal care brand when they purchased Hello Products for an undisclosed amount. The acquisition marked Colgate’s entry into the CBD market with Hello’s line of fluoride-free CBD toothpaste, with the option of activated charcoal.
Whether you associate Colgate with cool or not, it’s clear the brand doesn’t much care — the company is just as willing to quietly outsource any cool factor to its acquisitions while retaining its 200+ years of credibility on main. In 2021, Colgate’s revenue was $17.4 billion, up 5.8% from 2020. It will be interesting to see if they continue to use that revenue to invest in smaller CBD brands that are perhaps more willing to sell as the market levels out from a period of saturation.
If they do, Colgate will likely replicate its success with Tom’s of Maine and leave the acquired brands’ look and feel alone. Just be aware that the next brand of natural toothpaste you purchase could really just be a Colgate product in disguise.