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NEW YORK-Colgate-Palmolive Co. is taking an odd route into the red-hot tooth whitening niche.

This summer, Colgate's Canton, Mass.-based Oral Pharmaceuticals unit, which sells specialty products to dental offices and drugstores, will introduce nationally Colgate Platinum Whitening Toothpaste With Fluoride.

The introduction-the first entry in the $80 million segment by a major marketer-has been dressed up to present Platinum as more than just another cosmetic whitener and brightener.

The toothpaste will be marketed as part of a system that consumers are supposed to begin with the help of their dentists, who will fit them with a mouth plate meant to hold a special peroxide-based whitener and applied for an hour daily for two weeks. After that, the consumer can use the toothpaste that also claims to fight cavities, tartar and bad breath.

The kit costs $50 and includes a storage tray for the mouthpiece plus instructions; a 3-ounce tube of paste costs $5.99.

Rivals say Colgate is taking the long way around to introduce what may be just another whitener. But a company spokesman contended the system was proven superior in clinical trials to Den-Mat's Rembrandt, which goes for $3.25 a tube. The findings of those trials will be used in materials targeting dentists and maybe even in an estimated $10 million-plus consumer print campaign breaking in May from Mullen, Wenham, Mass.

Sampling and free standing inserts will also support Platinum, which is expected to have a brief New England test before full launch.

At stake is Rembrandt's 50%-plus share of the small but growing whitening segment, where Rembrandt posted a 70% sales in-crease for the 52 weeks ended Nov. 28, according to Information Resources' InfoScan audits.

Aging baby boomers are expected to fuel continued gains in the overall segment as they fight yet another unpleasant aspect of aging, yellowing teeth.

"If you go to your dentist to have your teeth bleached, it's $400 to $500," said Wendy Schille, Den-Mat's director of marketing research. "Most people won't spend that. But they'll try a toothpaste."

Wall Street analysts say Colgate's share of the $1.3 billion toothpaste market has dropped in the past two years from 26% to less than 22%.

The marketer was especially hurt by last year's introduction of Chesebrough-Pond's Mentadent baking soda and peroxide based toothpaste, which won a 10% share. Mentadent isn't touted as a whitener but contains ingredients that may be perceived as such by consumers.

Both Chesebrough and market leader Procter & Gamble Co. are expected to watch Platinum's progress and, if it takes off, to follow suit with their own products.

In the meantime, Den-Mat keeps rolling in a market crowded with a number of entries from small companies, including CCA Industries' Plus White and Dep's Topol and Topol Plus.

And next month, Den-Mat will shift the focus of its estimated $10 million ad budget, handled by Eisaman, Johns & Laws, Los Angeles, said Lisa O'Carroll, marketing director. FSIs and on-pack sampling with Polaroid film in foodstores will support.

The campaign will present Rembrandt as "The new standard in oral care," a positioning that could apply to future oral-care products.

At the same time, in what might be perceived as a response to both Mentadent and Platinum, Den-Mat will introduce a gel formula with peroxide.

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