Who has never used Pears Soap? Founded in 1789, it is the world’s oldest continuously existing brand, and, more than 200 years later, their almost transparent amber soap bars are still an iconic presence in many households and transport us back to our childhood whenever we use them. They are so loved that when, in 2009, Uniliver changed the 220+ year old formula, people were outraged and started a Facebook campaign to bring back the original soap.
But what is it that makes Pears Soap so special and who invented it? Pears Soap was created by Andrew Pears, a Cornish barber. In 1789, he opened a store in Soho, London, and started making creams, powders and other beauty products. Because Soho was a rich residential area, a lot of his clients were wealthy women who used concoctions with lead and arsenic to give their skin that fair, alabaster complexion that was so fashionable at the time. Pears noticed that these socialites used his products to cover the damage and dryness caused both by these toxic substances and the harsher soaps of the time.
So, he decided to create something that would be gentler for the skin and, after some experiments, Pears Soap was born. It was made with glycerin and natural oils, had a scent reminiscent of that of an English garden and a transparent appearance that set it apart from its competitors. However, Pears was more interested in quality that quantity and so he sold his soap only to an exclusive customer base. The business grew and prospered, the shop moved to Oxford and Pears won the prize medal for soap at the Great Exhibition in 1851.
Eventually, Andrew Pears retired and the business was handed down to his grandson Francis who expanded it, and opened new shops and offices, to compete with the increasing number of rivals trying to attract customers from the growing middle class population. In 1865, his son-in-law Thomas J Barratt, who is considered “the father of modern advertisement”, entered the firm as a partner. He changed the distribution system and came up with the extensive advertising campaigns which have become iconic. But the conservative Francis wasn’t comfortable with this and left the firm in the hands of his son Andrew and Barratt.
Barratt’s campaigns worked and the brand’s advertising posters are still very famous today. He knew how important it is to appeal to people’s emotions when creating an advertising campaign and the images (usually works of art) that ended up on his posters (the most famous is probably Bubbles by John Everett Millais), and of which he often bought the rights, reinforced the brand’s clean, healthy and safe image. He came up with catchy slogans, like the famous “Good morning. Have you used Pears’ soap?”, and convinced physicians and pharmacists to provide testimonials. He also convinced the very famous actress Lillie Langtry to appear in its advertising campaign (and paid her handsomely for it, of course).
He also came up with novel publicity schemes. For instance, he imported 250,000 French coins, which were accepted as legal tender in Britain at that time, and had the name Pears imprinted on them before putting them into circulation. The trick brought the brand much publicity but eventually the government passed an act that declared that foreign coins couldn’t be accepted as legal tender anymore. Another scheme involved giving new parents, who placed a birth notice in the newspapers, a bar of soap and an advertising leaflet.
In the mid 1910s, the brand became part of Lever Brothers (who also took over Pears Soap’s rival Otto Vinolia Toilet Soap, the one used on the Titanic and still sold nowadays) and moved production in the north west of England. From the early 20th century, Pears also organized a “Miss Pears” competition, in which parents entered their young daughters in the hope they would be chosen to became the new face of the brand. Now, Pears Soap is made in India by Hindustan Unilever. What a fascinating story behind such a familiar bar of soap, don’t you think?
Do you use Pears Soap? Do you like the new formula or did you prefer the original one?