An iconic soap with two weird claims to fame — “It floats” and it’s “99+44⁄100% Pure”

This iconic soap cake, invented nearly 150 years ago, has become part of Americana largely due to the publicity of its two bizarre merits: “It floats” and it’s “99+44⁄100% pure”.

The original product is a no-frills, plain white, lightly scented bar soap with the name “IVORY” engraved on it in script. Impressive, it has stayed exactly that way for 143 years – except for the addition of an aloe-scented variety, and is also still around.

The longevity of Ivory Soap goes against a notoriously volatile market for personal beauty products where new trends can appear and disappear in a flash.

So why has Ivory Soap stood the test of time? One theory is due to its clever advertising and branding. Ivoire soap packaging relentlessly celebrates the attributes of purity and buoyancy.

“It’s brilliant execution,” said David Placek, founder of Lexicon Branding, a branding expert who helped name popular consumer products like “Swiffer,” “Blackberry” and “Dasani.”

“Think about it. How many other soap operas can you think of that boast an attribute analogous to ‘It floats?’” Placek said. “I can’t think of another. It reminds you because it also makes you think of other soaps that don’t float.”

Because Ivory Soap’s slogans have remained consistent and endured for more than a century and through generations of consumers, they have seeped into the subconscious, Placek said.

“Even if you haven’t used Ivory Soap, you know and remember it,” he said.

The need for floating soap

Ivory Soap is the brainchild of Procter & Gamble. Not the huge multinational conglomerate of consumer brands that it is today, but of two people – Harley Procter (son of P&G co-founder William Procter) and James N. Gamble (son of fellow P&G co-founder, James Gamble).

This was at the end of the 19th century, a time when river bathing was widespread among large sections of the population. Now imagine losing your grip on a bar of soap when you’re waist-deep in murky water.

What if there was a bar of soap that could float?

A Article AdAge about the invention of Ivory Soap explained how Gamble was trying at the time to create a new type of soap with a mild formulation. The R&D process inadvertently created a batch of soap that turned out to be floating because air bubbles got trapped inside.

Gamble, according to the P&G website, acknowledged that “floating soap” could revolutionize the washing experience in more ways than one.

He first thought floating soap could be used for both laundry and dishes. Over time, the bar soap primarily became a bath soap.

Naming the soap was another story.

According to P&G legend, Harley Procter even used the word “ivory” while going to church and thought it matched the look and feel of the new soap perfectly and the pair embraced it. “Ivory Soap” as a name.

Advertisement for Ivory soap by the Procter and Gamble Company in Cincinnati, Ohio, 1897. (Photo by Jay Paull/Getty Images)

P&G launched the soap in 1879, touting it not only as a bar of soap that floated but also for its purity.

This claim, according to the company, was based on a study of the soap by professors of chemistry at the request of the inventors. A study showed that the soap contained only a small amount of impurities – 56/100 of a percent – of a non-soapy material.

So they decided to play that up in the Ivory Soap ad, rounding it out to create its iconic second tagline – “99 and 44-100% pure”.

P&G maintains that while continuing to innovate its Ivory soap, the product is still made with a simple formula free of dyes and parabens meant to gently cleanse the skin.

He did, however, extend the brand to other products.

Ivory soap advertising poster (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
In the 1950s, according to Article AdAge, P&G introduced light dishwashing detergent under the Ivory brand, followed by liquid hand soaps in the 1980s and moisturizing body washes in 1996 with the introduction of Ivory Moisture Care. Today, Ivory’s personal care portfolio also includes baby care products, hair and body washes and deodorants.

Ivory soap has become so iconic that in 2001, P&G donated a collection of its Ivory Soap artifacts to the Smithsonian Institution, including its first advertisement and an unused bar of soap from the 1940s.

Placek of Lexicon Branding said Ivory Soap is a product ahead of its time. “It was ‘pure’ before pure, clean and simple products became as popular as they are today with consumers,” he said.

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