From Sweat to Sales: Deodorant

There’s nothing like that internal groan that happens in your mind when you’re on your way to work and you realize you forgot to put on deodorant that morning. Now you have to spend all day with a perpetual blush on your cheeks as you worry whether or not your coworkers can smell you. You check yourself every few minutes as the panic sweat builds up, eventually you stop raising your arms all together out of pure fear. When you finally get home, you vow to keep your deodorant in a more prominent place so you never again have to go through that petty anxiety again. Well, that internal panic that you feel today actually began with a marketing campaign over one hundred years ago.

A New Market

In the early 1900s, antiperspirant and deodorant products were relatively new inventions. The first-ever deodorant called Mum was trademarked in 1888 and was designed to kill odor-causing bacteria. The first antiperspirant, patented in 1903, was called Everdry and worked to inhibit sweat production and bacteria growth.

Although perspiration products were beginning to make their way to the market, there wasn’t much of a market for them. Most of the people at the time viewed the products as unnecessary and, in some cases, unhealthy. The idea of speaking so intimately about bodily functions, in general, was taboo at the time as society was still very much Victorian.

Odor? Oh no!

The perception of anti-perspiration products changed in part due to Edna Murphy. Murphy, a high school student in Cincinnati, took up the task of trying to promote an antiperspirant product that her father, a surgeon, had invented to help keep his hands sweat-free as he operated. After trying the product under her armpits and finding that it thwarted the sweat and smell, Murphy named the product Odorono (Odor? Oh no!) and decided to take it to the market.

Though she didn’t have much success at first convincing people that they’d need a product like this, her luck turned around in 1912 at an Atlantic City summer exhibition booth. She didn’t have much luck initially, but due to the summer heat, she ended up finding some customers and raising awareness. Now she had some $30,000 to spend on the business and she turned her attention toward marketing.

From Sweat to Sales

Murphy hired a New York advertising company called J. Walter Thompson Company to assist her in getting her product out into the market. The company paired her with a young copywriter, James Young, who would work to help her launch a campaign.

His first advertisements focused on combating the belief that perspiration products were unhealthy. He worked to change the perception by creating advertisements that stated that Odorono was created by a doctor and that in fact “excessive perspiration” was the shameful medical problem in need of fixing.

The first round of advertisements drove up the sales by $65,000 and landed them a few international clients as well. But by 1919 sales had stopped growing and Young needed to think of a new way to bring in sales. In order to brainstorm, the company conducted a door-to-door survey which revealed that two-thirds of the women they surveyed felt there was no need for the product.

Young quickly realized that his new sales strategy would need to focus on convincing the market that Odorono was necessary. He did this through an ad campaign that claimed that excessive sweat and odor for women was an embarrassment and that it could make you unpopular without you even knowing it.

The ad caused shock waves in the conservative society at the time, causing many Ladies Home Journal subscribers to cancel their subscription and even caused many of the women in Young’s own social circle to stop speaking to him entirely. From a marketing standpoint, however, it worked.

By 1927, the company sales had reached one million dollars. It wasn’t long after that the other deodorant and perspiration product companies followed suit and it became a regular practice for women to wear deodorant.

It wasn’t until the mid-1930s, however, that companies began to also advertise to men. In order to distance themselves from the feminine reputation that the product had attained, they focused on making the product feel more ‘masculine’.

This was the time of the Great Depression and men were afraid of losing their jobs, and those who had lost their jobs were feeling emasculated. Deodorant companies created print ads targeting working men, stating that you don’t want to be the stinky man in the office and that this could negatively impact your career. Also, for those who had lost their jobs, this was a way for them to instantly feel more masculine. Thus, men began to use deodorant products as well and they became solidified in our society as a daily necessity.