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#022: Listerine – How to get the girl, by Listerine. Oh, and Axe.

It was first sold as a surgical antiseptic.  Then a floor cleaner.  Then a cure for STDs.  The real success came when they help us get the girl.  Learn how Listerine created the problem of bad breath so they could solve it.  And help you get the girl.  And grew by over 6,000% in 7 years.

Dave Young:

Welcome to the Empire Builders podcast, teaching business owners the not so secret techniques that took famous businesses from mom and pop to major brands. Stephen Semple is a marketing consultant, story collector, and storyteller. I’m Stephen sidekick and business partner, Dave young. Before we get into today’s episode, a word from our sponsor, which is well, it’s us. But we’re highlighting ads we’ve written and produced for our clients. So here’s one of those.

[Home Heating & Air Conditioning Ad]

Dave Young:

Stephen, we’re recording these podcast episodes over Zoom. And one of the things that Zoom hasn’t figured out yet is how to, you can share your screen, you can share files, you can chat, but thank goodness nobody’s figured out how to share your breath.

Stephen Semple:

I don’t know whether anyone listening is fans of Futurama but if you remember one of the inventions they had on Futurama, the professor in it had the Smell-O-Scope, which was the telescope that looked out at the universe and you could get the scent of the universe.

Dave Young:

Yeah. In the chat feature, there would be a share of breath mint function. So you wanted to talk about Listerine today.

Stephen Semple:

See it all ties together.

Dave Young:

It all ties together. Right. You see where I was going there? It took me a while.

Stephen Semple:

Listerine’s kind of an interesting story. The idea of Listerine dream was inspired by Louis Pasteur’s idea on microbial infections. There was an English doctor, Joseph Lister who demonstrated in 1865, so we’re going way back here, that the use of carbolic acid on surgical dressings would reduce infection. So Listerine started off as a way of reducing post-surgery infections. Now Lister’s work inspired a St. Louis based doctor, Joseph Lawrence to develop an alcohol based formula that was again, a surgical antiseptic, but it also included a couple of other things, had some menthol in it and a bunch of thymol and it is a trade secret in terms of the extra ingredients in it. And Lawrence named this antiseptic Listerine in honor of Lister. Lister was not involved in the creation of this. It was in honor of him.

Dave Young:

Okay. Okay.

Stephen Semple:

I was inspired by this guy from it. So I’m going to call it Listerine.

Dave Young:

Name it after a famous guy.

Stephen Semple:

Yeah. I’m going to name it after a famous guy. And he hoped to promote the product as a general germicide as well as a surgical antiseptic. Joseph Lawrence licensed the manufacturing of this formula to a local pharmacist named Jordan Wheat Lambert. You know Lambert pharmaceuticals? That Lambert.

Dave Young:

Okay.

Stephen Semple:

Listerine was promoted and then in 1895, one of the markets that they started promote to was dentists for oral care. And it was the first over the counter mouthwash sold in the United States in 1914. When 1914 came along, that’s when they decided to sell it as a over the counter mouthwash. Here’s where things get really interesting. So if you think about it, they had this antiseptic that they were using for surgical. There was even a period of time where they tried marketing it as a floor cleaner and a cure for gonorrhea.

Dave Young:

Okay.

Stephen Semple:

So they had all of these different things that they were trying to fix it on. And then, then they came across this idea that it could be used for bad breath. There’s this obscure medical term called halitosis. And they decided to tie it to the whole thing of this solves halitosis, not bad breath, chronic halitosis. So it sounds like-

Dave Young:

This is the beginning of these companies inventing the disease to go along with the product.

Stephen Semple:

That’s right. And that’s what they started in the 1920s. They said, okay, this cures chronic halitosis, but here is why they became so successful and Listerine is such a massive brand today and Lambert pharmaceutical became such a monster in the industry.

Dave Young:

Stay tuned. We’re going to wrap up this story and tell you how to apply this lesson to your business right after this.

[Empire Builders Ad]

Dave Young:

Let’s pickup our story where we left off and trust me, you haven’t missed a thing.

Stephen Semple:

Here is why they became so successful and Listerine is such a massive brand today. And Lambert pharmaceutical became such a monster in the industry. They started just, not only this whole idea of bad breath and halitosis, but pointing out that it’s a problem. You know how we talk about the best marketing is self-identification. When I can speak to somebody, how somebody sees themselves and my product can be a transformational experience to how they see themselves. Imagine this as a headline. Can I be happy with him in spite of that?

Dave Young:

Right.

Stephen Semple:

Because up until that time, bad breath was not conventionally considered like this terrible, terrible thing.

Dave Young:

It was just breath.

Stephen Semple:

It was just breath. But now you have the woman saying, boy, he’s got bad breath and can I be happy in spite of that? Hey dude, are we running out and buying fricking Listerine?

Dave Young:

Heck yeah.

Stephen Semple:

Ah. Played that game, right? They got boys to spray the crap all over themselves. Because hey, women are going to like me better because I smell better. Like, I mean, Axe took that playbook from Listerine my friends. Listerine invented this game.

Dave Young:

I love it. Identify the problem, convince people they have the problem.

Stephen Semple:

Right. So they were doing $115,000 a year in revenue before they started this campaign around halitosis.

Dave Young:

115,000 total.

Stephen Semple:

115,000 total. That was their Listerine revenues. They started this campaign and in seven years, sales go from $115,000 to 8 million. The thing that they did was they created the idea, the shame of bad breath. And they created that this bad breath will make you seen in this way, will destroy your love life, will have all of these impacts. And all you need to do is use this little golden bottle of Listerine, just a little bit every day and next think you know, everything is fine.

Dave Young:

Life will be golden.

Stephen Semple:

Life will be golden. And then in 1950 Lambert and Warner merge to create the Warner-Lambert pharmaceutical company. But the lesson here is, the lesson here is one could say that Listerine invented this disease. One could say that Listerine educated the consumer, got bad breath solved the bad breath, but that’s not why this was successful. Anybody saying that does not understand marketing. The reason why this was successful was self-identification. And what they said is if you’ve got bad breath, you’re not getting the girl. If you’ve got bad breath, you’re not getting job. If you’ve got bad breath, people are going to be talking about you behind your back. That is self-identification not education. And they built an empire just based off of a product that used to be used for cleaning floors.

Dave Young:

Thanks for listening to the podcast. Please share us. Subscribe on your favorite podcast app and leave us a big fat juicy five star rating and review at Apple Podcast. And if you’d like to schedule your own 90 minute Empire Building session, you can do it at empirebuildingprogram.com.

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