Palmolive and the 3,000 Year Old Testimonial

There’s nothing more exciting than bringing a brand new product to market. The launch window is a  precious and irreplaceable period of time when fortunes are made and fates decided. 

But what if you’ve missed your launch window? What if you need to grow sales on an older product when the novelty has worn off?

That was the challenge faced by copywriter Claude C. Hopkins in 1911 when Charles Pearce and B. J. Johnson, two hard-working soap manufacturers from Milwaukee, came to him with a little-known toilet soap called Palmolive. Pearce and Johnson wanted a bigger share of the market, but Palmolive had been floundering in obscurity for the past thirteen years. Barely any retailers stocked it — few had even heard of it — and all previous attempts at advertising had failed. 

Luckily for Palmolive, Hopkins and his business partner, Albert Lasker, were the greatest marketers of their era. 

A strong appeal: promising something different

Hopkins and Lasker had their work cut out for them. Toilet soap was a crowded market, and Palmolive was by no means a brand-new product. “About every possible customer is using a rival soap,” said Hopkins, many years later. “Most of them are satisfied with it. Many are wedded to it. The appeal must be strong enough to win those people from long-established favor.” 

Palmolive had to promise something special to the American public, but Hopkins had no idea what that promise should be. Every other soap on the market was claiming to offer the same functional benefits. Competitor soaps boasted that they were ‘mild’, ‘antiseptic’, ‘nourishing’, ‘promoting a feeling of cleanliness’ — there seemed to be nothing left for Palmolive to preach about. Hopkins had used novelty to grab the consumer’s attention in the past, but words like ‘new’, ‘announcing’ or ‘world-first’ simply didn’t fit a product that was already thirteen years old.

To find his strong world-beating appeal, Hopkins buried himself in research. He scoured distribution reports, artwork from prior campaigns and competitors’ packaging in search of something — anything — that he could turn into Palmolive’s unique selling proposition. He finally found what he was looking for in the recipe of the product itself. 

Palmolive got its name from its two main ingredients: palm oil and olive oil. These oils made Palmolive feel mild and smooth; they were a much gentler alternative to the caustic ingredients found in other soaps. They were also, Hopkins discovered, two oils with a very long history.  Hopkins discovered that the ancient Egyptians and Romans had used both palm oil and olive oil as beauty products. Since the dawn of time, it seemed, these two oils had been used to make people feel beautiful. 

When Hopkins found this out, it was a eureka moment. All of a sudden, Palmolive wasn’t thirteen years old – it was thousands of years old. Palmolive’s unique appeal was that it had been used as a beauty product since the dawn of civilisation. 

The 3,000 Year Old Customer Review

To illustrate his claim, Hopkins found a tablet of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics that mentioned palm oil and olive oil. The hieroglyphics were carefully photographed and reprinted in Palmolive’s advertisements as a tongue-in-cheek testimonial.

For American consumers in a country with barely a century of national history, Palmolive’s three-thousand-year-old promise was irresistible. Palmolive was the beauty product of the ancients. No other U.S. soap could come close. 

Palmolive had its unique sales pitch. Next, Hopkins needed a way to get new customers to give it a try. 

Forcing distribution with strong incentives to retailers

If the ‘Egyptian Beauty Secret’ ads worked the way Hopkins expected them to, thousands of consumers would be looking for Palmolive the next time they went grocery shopping. Palmolive had to be on the shopkeeper’s shelf at that very moment, otherwise it wouldn’t matter how convincing Hopkins’s ad was — Palmolive would miss its opportunity. 

This was a big problem, because in 1911, after thirteen years of weak sales, Palmolive had almost no distribution network. Most people bought toilet soap at their local drugstore, but B. J. Johnson Soap Co. had almost no foothold in that market. They had a floor cleaning soap called Galvanic which sold well, but that sold to grocers, not drugstores. If Hopkins wanted to transform the fortunes of Palmolive, he had to do more than write a good ad — he would have to convince drugstores to stock the product.

Benton Harbor Michigan today, tomorrow the world

There was no way to get Palmolive onto the shelf of every drugstore in the country overnight — production and distribution costs would have been impossibly high, and any flaws in the marketing strategy would be too expensive to correct on-the-fly.  Hopkins had to win distribution in one small test market first, then roll out his strategy in bigger and bigger territories over time. 

Benton Harbor, Michigan, a small city of ten thousand people, was chosen as the first territory. Hopkins was allocated a $700 advertising budget and got to work.

As a first step, Hopkins tried to get a few cases of Palmolive into every shop that stocked Galvanic with a promotion called “Johnson Soap Week”. During Johnson Soap Week, any customer in Benton Harbor who purchased a tin of Galvanic laundry soap could get a free bar of Palmolive at the same time. Every grocer who chose to participate in Johnson Soap Week was listed in a full-page advertisement in the local press — all the retailer had to do to participate was to buy one case of Palmolive. 

‘We’ll buy it for you’: an unbeatable offer

As soon as Hopkins had put Palmolive soap on the shelf of every grocer in Benton Harbor, he approached the drugstores — the market he really needed to sell to — with an unbeatable deal.

Palmolive’s next advertising push would include a coupon entitling the bearer to a bar of soap. Any drugstore that redeemed this coupon would be paid the full retail price for that bar of soap by B. J. Johnson. This way, drugstores weren’t wasting their time giving out free samples. Every bar of Palmolive they handed over the counter would be paid for in full, either by the customer or by the manufacturer. The offer was a no-brainer.

Drugstores duly bought a cases or two of Palmolive, Hopkins ran his “Beauty Secret 3,000 Years Old” advertisement, and the residents of Benton Harbor responded in droves. Repeat sales of Palmolive soap covered the $700 marketing investment ‘before the bills came due’ — not bad for a first attempt. 

Hopkins repeated the offer in another test market, then another, then another, for months. Every test market was a success, and he fine-tuned his approach with each attempt. By the end of the testing period, he knew that an investment of $3,000 ($1,000 on advertising and $2,000 on coupon payments), would produce soap sales of $20,000. Palmolive had a reliable, profitable growth strategy; it was ready to take on the whole of the USA.

Scaling up as swiftly as possible

Lord & Thomas bought a full page in the Saturday Evening Post — a newspaper with nationwide reach — and sent a mailer to 50,000 drugstores across the USA announcing the coupon offer and the results of their recent local campaigns.

Before the Saturday Evening Post ad had even appeared, Johnson Soap Co. had taken orders for $50,000 worth of Palmolive from retailers all over the country. The Saturday Evening Post went to print, and over the next four weeks, Palmolive sold another $75,000 worth of soap to drugstores.

Coupon redemptions from that first advertisement cost Palmolive 16% of their total sales revenues (two hundred thousand coupons were redeemed at a cost of $20,000), but it was a small price to pay for winning space on shelves all over the country. Less than a year after that first nationwide campaign, Palmolive was stocked in 99% of drugstores in America. 

By the end of 1912, the results were clear. Claude C Hopkins had achieved the impossible. With a clever appeal, a well-executed offer and a commitment to testing his ideas in small markets, Hopkins had taken a forgotten product with almost no distribution and transformed it into a household brand. After thirteen years of obscurity, Palmolive had finally arrived … and it was here to stay.

Claude C. Hopkins: The Original Scientific Advertiser

Claude C. Hopkins (1866 – 1932) did more than write smart slogans — he sold products — which is what copywriting should always be about.

He believed that every dollar invested in advertising deserved measurement, and that each advertisement had a responsibility to pay for itself in new sales. His pioneering techniques helped clients to break into some of the toughest consumer markets of the time. And most of the brands he worked on 100 years ago are still around today (brands like Goodyear Tires, Bissell, Pepsodent and Schlitz Beer …and of course Palmolive).

If you’d like to learn more about Claude C Hopkins, the best place to start is Scientific Advertising – a how-to book written by Hopkins himself which documents the techniques he relied on to sell products a century ago. You’ll be amazed at how many are still in use today.

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