The marketing genius archive – #1 Claude Hopkins, the man behind the perfect American smile


The most powerful principles of marketing don’t change, which is why I like to look at the early advertising campaigns that shaped the industry.

In the early 1900s an advertiser called Claude Hopkins was asked to work on a new toothpaste called Pensodent. This was at a time when only a very small minority of people regularly used a toothpaste. Initially he refused on the basis that it was a technical product, but eventually he was persuaded. What Hopkins did next would not only transform the toothpaste industry, but advertising at large.

  • Firstly, he realised that people weren’t going to buy technical detail, they weren’t even going to buy the promise of prevention of a decay in the future, they would only buy one thing, and that was a cure because a cure was the only thing that offered an immediate benefit and that’s what people buy – benefits. In this case, a beautiful smile.
  • Secondly, he identified a trigger that would make people think of the need for this benefit. He did this by asking consumers to run their tongue across their teeth and to notice what he called “the film”
  • Thirdly, and entirely by accident, he created a craving, which is essential if you are to develop a habit. You see there was an ingredient within the toothpaste that created a tingling sensation once people had finished brushing their teeth, and it was that tingling that gave people the sense of having clean teeth. This association was what people then craved and what in turn developed a daily habit for millions of people across the country.
  • Finally, during the launch phase he used coupons to test little variables on sales. For example, whey added the word “free” and actually found that sales plummeted by 75%. In another industry that might have had the opposite effect, but this was perceived as cutting edge stuff at the time and clearly people believed the word “free” undermined the scientific integrity of the product.

Soon Pepsodent were selling so many tubes of toothpaste that their operations could barely keep up, and within three years they had gone international. Virtually all competitor brands replicated the tactics, all adding ingredients to produce that tingling sensation, and also to create more foam while brushing. Again, it has no impact on the teeth, but it makes us feel like we’re achieving something.

That was all a hundred years ago but these principles are all just as true today and as marketers I think we can all learn a thing or two from Claude C Hopkins.

See you next time.

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