While Kao, the Japanese company behind the new Jergens Refreshing Body Shampoo System, hasn't asked me, I am troubled by the expenditures the two partners say they are planning to support a product introduction here in America. The intent is to get Americans to change their bathing habits and adopt the use of liquid body shampoo and a sponge in the bath or shower.
Americans will remember when Minnetonka's Soft Soap (since purchased by Colgate-Palmolive) started the liquid soap trend in early 1979. My former new products reporting company turned up more than 50 new liquid soap versions within a year or so -- far too many for all to become successful.
Then the realization hit the manufacturers that the largest segment of the personal soap category, 87%, was in soaps used in the showers and bathtubs of American homes. So, in varying degrees, manufacturers turned to liquid soaps.
But America's habits are hard to change. Lather and lots of soap bubbles are what Americans equate with cleanliness.
Since the liquid soap did not produce lots of "cleansing" bubbles in the shower/bath, Americans did not take to using liquids beyond the wash basin or sink. Jergens indicates in promotional literature that after all the previous efforts to make liquids go, 97% of the body cleansing category is still in bar soap.
The body sponge Jergens wants to sell America on is dual-textured; it will make lather/bubbles. But there is no convenient holder for the sponge, and no convenient holder or hanger for the bottle of liquid Body Shampoo. And there is no way Jergens has unequivocally tied in the use of the sponge with its own liquid soap product after the consumer initially purchases the two together. It comes in "kit" form in a 4-ounce soap and sponge combination package, both Regular and Deodorant, for $2.89. Refills of the liquid are 8-ounce bottles for $3.29 to $3.59. At the recent Exclusively HBA Trade Show, a senior Jergens executive touted what he said was a $50 million expenditure Jergens was putting behind this product introduction, together with what he claimed was $40 million more in each of the next two years, without any projection of it making a profit in a three-year period. That is a great deal of money -- but is it enough to get the American public to change its bathing habits a second time around? I'm going out on a limb. Wiser heads than mine in the United States and Japan have thought this through. But historical precedence and my collection of more than 80,000 once-new consumer products attests to the real risk KAO/Jergens is taking in trying to get America to change its bathing habits.
Robert McMath is a new-product consultant and director of the New Products Showcase & Learning Center in Ithaca, N.Y.