How Body Wash Beat the Bar in Battle of the Bathing Products

Thanks to Men Converting From Solid Irish Spring to Bottled Old Spice, the Category Is No.1 for the First Time

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BATAVIA, Ohio ( -- Despite a deep recession and the belief that the American male was profoundly pouf-averse, the U.S. has crossed the line from bar-soap nation to body-wash nation.

body wash

LOWERING THE BAR: More consumers are sudsing up with body washes.
For the first time in history and by the thinnest of margins, body wash outsold bar soap last year in food, drug and mass outlets tracked by Information Resources Inc., according to data reported by Deutsche Bank -- $756.3 million to $754.2 million.

For a time, it looked like the milestone would be reached in 2008, but a recession that began in late 2007 seemed to delay the inevitable. Bar soap tends to have both lower price points and a lower cost per use than body wash, making the latter a tougher sell when families are tightening their belts.

Even so, body-wash sales grew a fairly robust 5% last year, vs. only 1.4% for bar soap. Those numbers don't include Walmart, club or dollar stores, whose value orientation and clientele may make for a higher bar-to-liquid ratio. But regardless, the writing is on the shower stall for bar soap and has been for years.

Perhaps the best proof of that can be found in the ancestral homeland of bar soap in the U.S., the former Procter & Gamble Co. Ivorydale factory in St. Bernard, just north of Cincinnati. In 2003, P&G sold the factory to Canadian contract manufacturer Trillium Health Care. Redubbed the St. Bernard Soap Co., this single plant, thanks to category shrinkage, accommodates the manufacture of a third of all bar soap sold in the U.S., according to the Cincinnati Business Courier, and not just for P&G, but also for others who now find making their own bar soap "non-strategic," including Colgate-Palmolive Co. (Irish Spring) and Kao Brands (Jergens). The thought of those rivals co-mingling under the same factory roof would once have sent shivers up the spine of Mad Men veterans of the 20th century's storied bar-soap advertising wars.

Blame the American male primarily for this. Men who were once heavy users of such manly brands as Irish Spring, Henkel's Dial and P&G's Zest have been converting to body washes over the past seven years.

The next test
Since 2003, the year P&G's Old Spice became the first of the big U.S. brands to try the body-wash market, sales of deodorant bar soap have plummeted nearly 40% to $234.7 million last year. Sales of non-deodorant bar soap -- dominated by the more-female-oriented Dove -- have grown modestly since that time, just not at the steady double-digit rate of body wash.

Getting out to a head start in front of Unilever's Axe, which entered body wash in 2004 in the U.S., ultimately didn't guarantee victory for P&G. Axe may have showed up late, but it's arguably (and yes, they really do argue) bigger in the category now, having overtaken Old Spice lately in Walmart facings in P&G's hometown of Cincinnati lately, for example.

The next body-wash test will come from Dove Men & Care body wash and bar soap, endorsed by winning New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. The launch, um, dovetailed with Unilever's 45-second Super Bowl ad for its new men's line. To be sure, the emergence of Dove's male persona has produced plenty of skepticism in social media about men ever accepting a brand with such a well-earned female heritage. And while many tweeters, perhaps even a majority, seemed to like Dove's Super Bowl ad on game night, most who liked it appeared to be women.

Then again, some people also had doubts when Old Spice launched its men's body wash in 2003 about how big the segment could become and whether men could reconcile themselves to the pouf. In fact, many stuck to the old washcloth or embraced the masculine-looking "shower tools" that resemble poufs sealed inside auto parts now plied by Axe, Dove and Old Spice.

The winners in this transition to a body-wash nation -- a journey the U.S. has made later than most developed markets -- aren't entirely obvious. Unilever is the clear share leader in both bar soap and body wash in the U.S. But it leads by more in bar soap, particularly non-deodorant bars, than in body wash (Unilever leads P&G by more than a three to one margin in bars, vs. roughly two to one in scanned channels in body wash overall).

Body wash is a hotly contested market where four players -- Unilever, P&G, Colgate and Henkel -- have double-digit shares; Johnson & Johnson has a 7.4% dollar share; and Beirsdorf (Nivea) and Alberto-Culver (St. Ives) are also in the running with dollar shares of 3.7% and 3%, respectively. So Unilever's leadership could be diluted some by the continued shift unless it gains an outsize share of new body-wash users.

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