How Scope Depositioned Listerine


How Scope® De-Positioned Listerine®

First formulated by Dr. Joseph Lawrence and Jordan Lambert in St. Louis, Missouri in 1879 as a surgical antiseptic, Listerine was given to dentists for oral care in 1895 and it was the first over-the-counter mouthwash sold in the United States in 1914.

According to Freakonomics:

Listerine, for instance, was invented in the nineteenth century as powerful surgical antiseptic. It was later sold, in distilled form, as both a floor cleaner and a cure for gonorrhea.  But it wasn’t a runaway success until the 1920s, when it was pitched as a solution for “chronic halitosis” – a then obscure medical term for bad breath.

Listerine’s new ads featured forlorn young women and men, eager for marriage but turned off by their mate’s rotten breath.  “Can I be happy with him in spite of that?” one maiden asked herself in a then famous print ad.  Until that time, bad breath was not conventionally considered such a catastrophe.  But Listerine changed that.

As the advertising scholar James B. Twitchell writes, “Listerine did not make mouthwash as much as it made halitosis.”  In just seven years, the company’s revenues rose from $115,000 to more than $8 million.

The Mouthwash Wars Back Story:

In this way, Listerine became a clear and early example of a larger trend: marketing campaigns inventing problems that the product is alleged to solve.  Ultimately, this lead to the development of both positioning and de-positioning science, may years later.

For over 46 years Listerine was the number 1 brand of mouthwash, because they literally invented the category of ‘mouthwash’.  But it tasted like medicine.  In fact, they used this negative aspect to claim a positioning that helped them keep the number 1 market share position for more than 4 decades: Listerine was the “taste you love to hate twice a day”, and later Listerine explained its effectiveness by stating that “Listerine kills the germs that cause bad breath”.  Thus, Listerine staked the ‘’medical science’ positioning for their product.

In the late 1950s, another liquid antiseptic decided to make a play for this significant category.  By giving their red, cinnamon-tasting liquid to dentists, they assumed consumers at the shelf would say “hey, that’s the stuff my dentist uses, so it must be good”.  The product (Lavoris) failed miserably – for one reason: the ‘medical science’ positioning was already claimed by Listerine, which worked fine for consumers – they didn’t NEED a new mouthwash, they already had one that worked just fine.

Lavoris made the mistake of trying to be a “better mousetrap”, and forgot that trying to unseat a number 1 brand is almost always an exercise in failure.  If they had used positioning and de-positioning science properly, they could have claimed another positioning that was as-yet unclaimed, and won the mouthwash war.  Lavoris tasted good, especially compared with the medicinal flavor of Listerine.  But tasting good is not a core component of a mouthwash, which is intended to clean your mouth and breath, so they did not use this strategy.

In 1966 another company (Proctor and Gamble) introduced Scope.  Essentially there was no difference chemically between Scope and Lavoris.  But P&G used positioning science effectively.  Their positioning claim was THREE WORDS that in a matter of 90 days placed Scope in the number 1 position: “FIGHTS MEDICINE BREATH”.  This is one of the most successful DE-POSITIONING campaigns in marketing history.  They DE-POSITIONED the market leader by creating DISSATISFACTION around the fact that Listerine tasted like hell, even though it worked.

Reasoning (correctly) that they could not claim the medical / science position of Listerine and win, they literally created a new category: “good tasting mouthwash”, and not only became the number 1 selling mouthwash in the world, they also caused Listerine to react defensively (spending hundreds of millions of dollars) to introduce good tasting Listerine formulas.

By creating a new ‘Category Class’ (good tasting mouthwash), which was NOT based on the core desired effect or principal expected function of a mouthwash, Scope won the war quickly, decisively and very profitably.

Their new Category Class appealed to the ASPIRATIONAL (not functional) aspects of mouthwash-using consumers.  It was easily assumed by the market that any mouthwash would have at least the basic function of cleaning breath, but the market had never seen a mouthwash that actually tasted good.  De-positioning at its best.