Marketing History: The Mistake That Floated a Brand to Worldwide Fame


So much has been written, discussed, promulgated, and proclaimed about the value of advanced planning. No marketing campaign -- in fact no action of any consequence -- should take place without the underpinning of a sound strategy. As virtually every marketer sees it, it’s all in the preparation.

The advanced planning credo is valid enough in most cases. Nobody would dream of taking a budget-consuming step without developing a preparatory framework. And yet, in one instance, a now-famous brand was the result of a glaring mistake … and some quick-reaction inspiration that capitalized on human error. As they say, it was meant to be.

The brand is Ivory Soap … the soap that floats. Why would a buoyant bar of cleansing ingredients appeal to the shopping public? The answer has some deep-rooted psychological connection. Amazingly, the connection was perceived by Cincinnati’s Procter and Gamble (the floaty soap’s originator), and thereafter exploited to the fullest.

How did this lucky event transpire? Well, way back in 1879, a relatively new company called Procter and Gamble was making a batch of one of its standard products – soap.  But a mechanical churner – the machine responsible for mixing the soapy ingredients – was left running too long. The result was a floating soap – a phenomenon never seen until this fateful moment.

Dubbing the floating phenomenon Ivory, P&G invested $11, 000 (in 19th century dollars) on a marketing campaign intended to spread the word about its discovery. Success followed rapidly, prompting P&G to expand output to more than 30 different brands of soap. Within 10 years, the company’s sales quadrupled, giving P&G enough muscle to compete successfully with two of their soap-producing contemporaries – Colgate and Palmolive. Interestingly, all three of these companies are still going strong today, with P&G one of the 30 heavyweights listed on the Dow Jones Industrial Index. And it all started with a botched batch of soap.

(Side Note -- At the time of this discovery, P&G’s candle sales were plummeting thanks to an innovative illumination product called kerosene. The timing couldn’t have been better.)

Of course, most industrial mistakes never will bring commercial benefits. Quite the opposite. Nevertheless, this historical flashback demonstrates the value of keeping one’s eyes open for opportunity. It’s the inspired individual who sees it, grabs it, and carries it as far as possible.

If you have questions or comments about brand marketing, or about any other brand-related topic, feel free to send them our way.