Listerine had a dominant market share in mouthwash for decades. That position was built in part on the strength of their mouthwash. They actually used the harshness of its taste as a selling point, with the slogan “The taste people hate, twice a day.”

In hindsight, this set Listerine up for a very obvious repositioning campaign. After all, it doesn’t take much to move a forcefully unpleasant taste from a strength to a weakness. It was Scope that took advantage of it. If Listerine left a medicinal taste in your mouth then it probably left that smell too, Scopes ads usually implied, and well, is that smell really much better than how it was before? One particularly creative ad showed how much more pleasant an alternate scent could be. This ad is from the 70’s and incorporated scratch and sniff technology to give consumers a visceral sense of the difference:

Medicine Breath Scratch & Sniff
Notice Scope is really pushing the question “How would you rather smell to other people?”

Just like in other classic competition repositioning examples, Scope isn’t the immediate focus of this ad. Remember, they have to shift how consumers think of  the other brand before they can fill the void. So, the ad waits until the negatives of Listerine (not mentioned by name) are fully explored.  Note, the focus isn’t on making Listerine seem less effective. Most people using mouthwash used Listerine. They already thought it was effective and changing their mind would be difficult. What they didn’t think was that Listerine was unduly medicinal, or perhaps that the medicinal smell was necessarily a bad thing – now Scope showed that your clean breath could be just as unpleasant.

Scope chose to attack it’s effectiveness at actually making your breath smell better rather than its effectiveness in killing germs. That’s the great thing about repositioning campaigns. The strategy is readily apparent.

Judging by sales the campaign was effective. The formerly unassailable Listerine lost market share and was forced to change its products’ formula to achieve a more friendly taste (and then of course spend a lot of money broadcasting that).

As a bonus, here’s a list of all the weird ways Listerine has been used in the past, or you could go deeper into the world of repositioning with our article on Tylenol.

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