Why You Seldom See Noxzema Anymore

P&G Facial Cleanser Once Was in Nearly Every American Medicine Cabinet

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BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- "Procter didn't love it enough."

That's the take of beauty-industry consultant Suzanne Grayson on why the century-old Noxzema brand went into decline. And it seems there still may be no love lost. People familiar with the matter said Procter & Gamble has been trying to sell the once-ubiquitous brand for several months. (The company declined to comment.)
Washed up: Century-old brand had more than 20% market share in the '70s, but now it's rumored to be on the block.
Washed up: Century-old brand had more than 20% market share in the '70s, but now it's rumored to be on the block.

But Ms. Grayson, who dealt with Noxzema as a consultant for P&G and its prior owner, Noxell, certainly has affection for the storied brand. She and other normally sanguine marketers who have been close to it over the years are feeling unusual pangs of nostalgia for a brand they say suffered from being pigeonholed, underleveraged and never clearly defined.

"P&G is great at building megabrands," said Rick Brenner, who was a marketing director on Noxzema before and after P&G acquired it in 1989 and is now exec VP-new ventures for green insecticide marketer Tyratech. "When it comes to niche brands, it's not that they don't have the smarts. They just don't have the desire."

There was a time, however, when Noxzema, a facial-cleanser-cum-makeup-remover-cum-acne-remedy in a distinctive blue glass bottle, was in almost every American medicine cabinet. In fact, Mr. Brenner said Noxzema had some of the strongest consumer affinity of any brand he's ever worked on. "You'd sit in focus groups, and you'd have 30-year-old women remembering when they were over at Judy's house and the first time they ever used it." A lot of those strong memories stem from the distinctive smell, he said.

Noxzema's history was as a prototypical wiki-brand molded by fans. The product was invented in 1911 by physician Robert Townsend in Ocean City, Md., as a sunburn remedy for vacationers. One user told Mr. Townsend the medicated cream "really knocked my eczema," inspiring the brand name.

After another physician, George Bunting, acquired the brand, he made it the charter account in 1946 for agency Sullivan, Colwell & Bayles, which ultimately became part of Interpublic's Lowe Worldwide.

A former executive at the agency, Mary Ayres, discovered jars of Noxzema disappearing from the product cabinet in the 1960s, said Stone Roberts, who was then with Sullivan and is now CEO of Omnicom Group's Roberts & Tarlow. Women were taking it home to use as a cleanser, he said. Soon the agency had persuaded Noxell to reposition it as a medicated wash.

Celebrities who appeared in Noxzema ads include Cybill Shepherd and Mariel Hemingway. The nearly extinct Noxzema men's shaving cream was also backed by one of the most memorable and mimicked TV ads of the 1960s, in which former Miss Sweden Gunilla Knudson, then 18, urged men to "Take it off. Take it all off," as the song "The Stripper" played in the background.

So what hastened its demise? Before P&G acquired Noxzema, Noxell saw threats on the horizon, such as Neutrogena, which was then an independent brand with minimal ad spending but fierce consumer loyalty.

'Smell and the crunch'
But the writing was already on the wall for Noxzema when P&G acquired it, Mr. Brenner said. In one of its first meetings with P&G management, the Noxzema team pitched former Chairman-CEO Ed Artzt on the need to extend to adjacent categories. Mr. Brenner recalls Mr. Artzt saying, "That's not what the brand's about. It's about the smell and the crunch, and you've got to stay true to that."

P&G had bought Richardson-Vicks and its Oil of Olay brand four years earlier. Mr. Brenner said Olay provided a much stronger platform with appeal to a wider array of ages, as evidenced by the $2.5 billion powerhouse it's become. Noxzema ultimately did make a go at moisturizers with the $55 million launch of Skin Fitness in the late 1990s. But by then the category was considerably more crowded, and Skin Fitness has all but disappeared, according to Information Resources Inc.

Certainly it wasn't for lack of talent that Noxzema idled. Among marketers who worked on the brand for P&G in the 1990s, at least five later became CEOs of start-up companies or divisions of corporations, including Sears Roebuck & Co. Chief Marketing Officer Richard Gerstein and Mike McNamara, who went on to help Johnson & Johnson build Neutrogena during the past decade into a $2 billion-plus brand before becoming CEO of fast-growing beauty upstart Philosophy last year.

But they captained the slide. Noxzema had $39.9 million in sales across numerous categories for the 52 weeks ended June 15, according to IRI, with sales likely about $60 million in all channels. P&G pulled the media plug on Noxzema more than a year ago; in all, it got $2 million in media support last year and a cumulative total of $69.6 million the five years before, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

New owners
Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett, Chicago, remains its agency of record, as it has been since P&G acquired the brand. Publicis sibling Starcom MediaVest handles what remains of media planning and buying.

Mr. Roberts said he still believes Noxzema could be resurrected by an owner who focuses on it, unlike P&G, which he believe bought Noxell mainly for Cover Girl. "The right people willing to make the right investment could certainly make a good business," he said.

Efforts by Reckitt Benckiser to revive another P&G castoff, Clearasil, and Johnson & Johnson's efforts to build or revive brands such as Aveeno and Clean & Clear in the past decade are signs such a turnaround is possible, Ms. Grayson said.

But Mr. Brenner said it would take considerable effort to turn Noxzema around in a now-crowded market. "It has a lot of pent-up love by consumers now in their 40s and 50s," he said. "But I would not want to sign up for that job if I didn't have some kick-ass technology."
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