Tim Youngman: The Colgate brushswap saga

Colgate electric toothbrush swap in Waterloo Station

Colgate electric toothbrush swap in Waterloo Station - Credit: Archant

It’s a sad but true fact that one of the best way to learn in business is from others mistakes and I would like to share an absolute classic from Colgate. Colgate’s brand has grown from toothpaste to toothbrushes and now electric toothbrushes.

The latter is a very competitive market with brands such as Philips and Braun’s Oral B spending vast sums on TV advertising. So you can sympathise with the marketing team at Colgate when thinking how they could make some noise about the launch of its new electric toothbrush.

What they came up with was BrushSwap. Create a viral noise by having a stand at Waterloo station for a week followed by another at London Victoria station for a week. At the stand commuters could swap their old electric toothbrushes for a brand new Colgate ProClinical toothbrush billed as being worth £170. A great idea you might think, or was it?

The problem with giving away free stuff and announcing it on social media is that it tends to get shared, a lot. On the first day people starting queuing at the stand at 5am, it wasn’t planned to open until 7am. By 9am they were forced to shut the stand after being swamped by people and having run out of brushes. Cue lots of annoyed people who had travelled to London to get this seemingly great offer taking to social media to vent their anger and Colgate trying to respond and explain the situation via twitter.

To be fair to Colgate, on paper it was a good idea using a tried and trusted technique. The reality was different. Colgate has now learnt not to underestimate the reach of social media to spread both a good message and a bad one when things go wrong. It has also moved the initiative online to an open to all draw for one of 7,000 brushes they are giving away. Network Rail is also reviewing what promotional opportunities it allows after numerous complaints from angry commuters caught in the chaos.


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Maybe the real lesson comes from Philips who placed a press ad appearing in national newspapers reading: “The best things in life aren’t free.” The ad had an image of the Philips Sonicare electric toothbrush and the strapline: “The UK’s No1 sonic toothbrush. And worth every penny.” Now that’s marketing.

Tim Youngman is director of marketing for Archant.

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