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The hottest technological innovation in the $1.4 billion dentifrice market owes its birthright not to pure research & development but a simple consumer insight.

In the early 1980s, Unilever executives learned consumers were concocting their own blends of baking soda and peroxide at the recommendation of dentists. That was the beginning of Mentadent.

However, finding a way to package baking soda, peroxide and fluoride-they lose shelf stability when mixed together-wasn't easy. Unilever's Chesebrough-Pond's unit got on the case, and in 1991 R&D came up with the oversized dual-pump system that is a hallmark of Mentadent. The solution was to keep the baking soda and peroxide separate until they pop out of the pump.

Then came marketing. As VP-Marketing Bill Ecker, 37, cautiously notes: "It was a good idea but it's a tough market."

Under Mr. Ecker and Category Manager Gary Fraser, Mentadent grew to a $60 million brand in the four months following its October 1993 launch. And industry observers project $100 million in sales by the end of 1994.

The sales pace has given the brand a 9.5% market share in recent months.

The team knew it had a winner in test marketing. Mr. Ecker discovered the brand's somewhat premium pricing-$1.94 for 3.5-ounces and $2.49 for 4.5-ounces-was no obstacle to sales. Mentadent went into two other test markets with a 40% price increase, or $2.99 for 3.5 ounces and $3.49 for 5.2 ounces, and even in an everyday low-pricing environment the brand kept growing.

Mr. Ecker credits Mentadent's fresh taste sensation, a result of the explosion of oxygen bubbles when the baking soda and peroxide finally meet. It gets a high degree of consumer loyalty that's made trial through sampling and couponing an integral part of the $60 million introductory marketing support.

"It's just a question of getting Mentadent into people's hands," Mr. Ecker says.

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