Invented nearly 150 years ago, this iconic cake of soap has become a part of Americana in large part by touting its two curious benefits: “It Floats” and it’s “99+44⁄100% Pure.”
The original product is a plain, mildly scented white soap with no frills, with the name “IVORY” engraved in script. Impressively, it’s stayed exactly that way for 143 years — except for the addition of an aloe-scented variety, and it’s still around, too.
Ivory soap’s longevity flies in the face of a notoriously fickle market for personal beauty products, where new trends can come and go in the blink of an eye.
So why has Ivory Soap stood the test of time? One theory is due to its clever advertising and branding. Ivory soap packaging famously, and relentlessly, projects the attributes of purity and buoyancy.
“This is great execution,” said David Placek, founder of Lexicon Branding, a branding specialist who has helped name such popular consumer products as “Swiffer,” “Blackberry” and “Dasani.”
“Just think about it. How many other soaps can you think of that’s similar to ‘It Floats?'” Placek said. “I can’t think of any more. It makes you remember because it also makes you think of other soaps that don’t float.”
Because Ivory Soap’s taglines have remained consistent and resonated for more than a century and through generations of consumers, they have seeped into the subconscious, Placek said.
“Even if you haven’t used Ivory Soap, you know about it and you remember it,” he said.
The need for floating soap
Ivory Soap is the brainchild of Procter & Gamble. Not the massive multinational consumer brand conglomerate it is today, but two people — 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 at the end of the 19th century, a time when river swimming was common among large sections of the population. Now imagine losing your grip on a bar of soap when you’re waist deep in murky water.
But what if there was a bar of soap that could float?
Gamble, according to P&G’s website, recognized that “floating soap” could revolutionize the washing experience in more ways than one.
He originally thought that floating soap could be used for both laundry and laundry. Over time, bar soap became primarily bath soap.
Naming the soap was another story.
According to P&G legend, Harley Procter used the word “ivory” while attending church and thought it perfectly suited the look and feel of the new soap, and both men adopted “Ivory Soap” as the name.
P&G launched the soap in 1879 advertising it not only as a bar of soap that floated but also for its purity.
This claim, according to the company, was based on a study of the soap by chemistry professors at the request of the inventors. One study showed that the soap had only a small amount of impurities — 56/100 percent —
one material without soap in it.
So they decided to play it up in the Ivory Soap ad, rounding it off to create its second iconic tagline — “99 and 44-100% pure.”
P&G claims that while it continues to innovate its Ivory Soap, the product is still made with a simple formula without dyes and parabens that is meant to gently cleanse the skin.
However, it has expanded the brand to other products as well.
Ivory soap has become so iconic that in 2001 P&G donated a collection of Ivory Soap artifacts to the Smithsonian Institution, including its first advertisement and an unused bar of soap from the 1940s.
Lexicon Branding’s Placek said Ivory Soap is a product way ahead of its time. “It was ‘clean’ before pure, clean and simple products became as popular as they are with consumers today,” he said.