P&G Loses Zest, but Soap Leaves Behind Legacy

53-Year-Old Brand Remembered for 'Zestfully' Clean Tagline Played Prominent Role in Soap Wars

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BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- Procter & Gamble co. has lost its Zest in North America.

The company last week sloughed off the brand's U.S., Canadian and Puerto Rican business to a private-equity firm, Brynwood Partners, following a well-worn divestiture path traveled by the likes of Lava, Noxzema, Pert and Sure in recent years. The deal leaves P&G with Zest's business in Latin America and the Philippines and an ever-dwindling number of U.S. bar soap brands as the category moves toward liquid soap -- including the iconic Ivory, Safeguard and Olay.

Pre-legal troubles, Roger Clemens got Zestfully clean in ads.
Pre-legal troubles, Roger Clemens got Zestfully clean in ads.

But by divesting Zest, it's leaving a brand behind with a rich advertising history. Perhaps Zest's most memorable campaign was the well-worn "Zestfully Clean" tagline used as recently as last decade, but the brand always had a cleanliness-next-to-Godliness meme going with its "fully clean" positioning, as decades of ads contrasted the clean rinse of a bar laced heavily with synthetic detergent vs. the "sticky film" left behind by ordinary soap. As a 1957 story in Ad Age headlined "Toilet soap marketers gird loins for bitter battle in chaotic field" reported, Zest's "ad copy emphasizes the soap's deodorant protection qualities, no dulling film on the skin and no bathtub ring."

Perhaps most famously, the brand got a cameo appearance by a then-young and presumably steroid-free Roger Clemens in a 1987 ad. On suspicion that he didn't come fully clean in testimony to Congress regarding steroid use years later, Mr. Clemens was indicted on federal perjury charges earlier this year.

While Ivory has not had measured media support in years, it has a stronger history.
While Ivory has not had measured media support in years, it has a stronger history.
Zest has been in hot water even longer. Nearly a decade ago, P&G divested its storied Ivorydale factory in Cincinnati, where Ivory and other bar soaps were made for more than a century. It's now run by a Canadian contract manufacturer that also serves Colgate-Palmolive Co. and Henkel.

At P&G, Zest for the past decade or so has been managed along with another long-declining U.S. brand, Ivory, as a decided afterthought by managers whose duties also included bigger and more vibrant brands such as Olay and Secret.

Ivory is still floating around at P&G despite not having had a whiff of measured-media support for much longer than Zest. Its history is likely to keep it off the divestiture block for the foreseeable future given the symbolic implications of the "House That Ivory Built" selling the Ivory brand. Zest didn't quite carry the same historic heft, though it's a brand with a lot of history and which has gotten media support as recently as 2007.

WPP's Grey Global Group was still agency of record for Zest in the U.S. at the time of the sale and remains so outside the U.S. In 2007, Zest got a modest $3.7 million outlay, according to Kantar Media data.

The brand's history stretches to 1957, when it was launched nationally after five years of test marketing backed by ads from Benton & Bowles, New York. Ultimately, Zest was among a handful of brands handled by Jordan McGrath Case & Taylor, New York, but well behind the biggest of those, Bounty, in strategic importance to P&G even then. When P&G pulled the stopper on its relationship with Jordan McGrath in 2002, Grey took over.

The buzz was that the account move might be a blessing in disguise, opening the door for Jordan McGrath's final resting place, Arnold Worldwide, to take on competing business. And sure enough, about a year later, Arnold, Boston, launched Gillette Co.'s challenger to Unilver's Axe -- Tag. Ironically though, following P&G's 2005 acquisition of Gillette, Zest still out-survived Tag. P&G discontinued that brand last year.

Hard as it may be to believe now, Zest played a prominent role in the soap wars of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Its formula was designed for hard-water areas like Dayton, just north of P&G's Cincinnati headquarters, and extending throughout much of the Midwest, Mountain West and even Southern California, where heavy mineral concentrations made regular bar soap less effective.

"For the first time in your life, feel really clean," proclaimed an ad from 1958 for Zest from Benton & Bowles. God knows Don Draper could have used some.

The message was a little over the top, even for that era, apparently. In "The Creative Man's Corner" that same year, Advertising Age lampooned the approach. "It's entirely possible Zest does something Ivory and Camay and even Tide do not do," we said. "But if it does, we wonder if it is detectable by ordinary human nerves. Frankly, the cleanest we have ever felt was after jumping you-know-what naked into an old swimmin' hole."

Some big-city folk just didn't understand the plight of hard-water sufferers.

Later in its life at P&G, Zest tried maybe a little too hard to be cool, and was certainly ahead of its time, paving the way for Isaiah Mustafa and legions of Axe men rutting around in their man scents.

In 2000, the brand entered a new millennium with a line of body washes backed by Jordan McGrath and positioned for men -- well before most guys were prepared to take up the pouf. It didn't catch on, but it was among the early hammer blows that ultimately tore down the flood wall that has men awash in liquid soap ads today.

And, by the way, those decades of sticky-soap-scum demos look not unlike some ads Unilever's Dove was doing from Ogilvy & Mather only last year.

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