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Designing a tip-top toothbrush is like building a better mousetrap: It's hard to improve on the original. But SmithKline Beecham will bet as much as $35 million through 1995 to market a new product it believes fills the bill.

In the last two years, the once-plebian toothbrush has been imbued with new grandeur and loftier price tags. Colgate-Palmolive's Precision and Procter & Gamble Co.'s Crest Complete were introduced touting superior bristle action while Dep Corp. and Johnson & Johnson flogged products with color-changing handles to prevent over-zealous brushing.

Now, SmithKline is unveiling Aqua-Fresh Flex Direct, featuring a patented moveable head.

Flex Direct features an insert between the head and handle, allowing the head and bristles to rotate and clean hard-to-reach spots. The product also features more flexible plastic bristles than regular toothbrushes.

Retail executives say an estimated $10 million marketing effort will begin in October, with a TV campaign from Grey Advertising, New York. To demonstrate Flex Direct up close to the consumer, Time Inc.'s In Store Marketing will choreograph some 2,500 product demos in retailers across the country. Couponing through free standing inserts and dental practitioners also supports.

All funding comes at the expense of original Flex, introduced in late 1991.

Executives close to SmithKline say 1995 marketing funding could rise to $25 million, depending on the competitive noise level. That could be quite high.

For 1993 and '94, Crest Complete, via Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, has spent more than $45 million on advertising to build a 14% share in the $450 million brush category, according to Information Resources Inc. Meanwhile, Gillette Co.'s Oral-B Laboratories has invested $25 million in media this year to help introduce the Oral-B Advantage Plaque Remover brush via BBDO Worldwide, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Competition is expected to remain fierce even though total category growth for the 52 weeks ended July 3 was just 0.5%.

J&J, which Competitive Media Reporting said spent $17 million to advertise Reach in 1993, will hike spending by 40% this year to introduce Reach Advanced Design.

And Unilever's Chesebrough-Pond's is said to be working on a new toothbrush, possibly under its Mentadent brand.

"The toothbrush market is bipolar now, consisting of very cheap and very premium brands," said one industry executive. "Unless you want to see share erode you have to come out with something new."

That's a fact J&J and SmithKline know all too well. Since launching Precision, Colgate's toothbrush sales are up 4.7% to $109.5 million, for a 24.4 share.

But sales of J&J's Reach have declined 4.7% to $100 million for a 16.6 share, while SmithKline's Aqua-Fresh Flex has seen sales shrink by almost 2% to $23.4 million, for no better than a 5.2 share.

SmithKline is looking for new Aqua-Fresh Flex Direct to reverse its declining fortunes in the U.S. toothbrush wars. And if the flexible brush can duplicate what it has done overseas, SmithKline may win its bet. Since the flexible brush's 1993 introduction in Germany, SmithKline's share has increased by 50% to the mid-30s range, say SmithKline executives there. And following the brush's January U.K. debut, share has doubled to 20-plus.

"The problem in the U.S.," said one executive close to SmithKline, "is the market is stagnant."

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