It is one of those small comforts the morning bath routine. The merest sniff has the power to transport me back to my childhood. A gentle, vaguely biscuity smell like the soft, warm aroma of the linen cupboard; the comforting concave oval shape with indents into which you can fit the old worn bar (waste not, want not!). Yes, I am talking about Pears Transparent Soap.
This particular brand is 200 years old, as the newly reworded carton reminds me. In fact the soap is 220 years old. First formulated in 1789, it was the world’s first registered brand and therefore is the world’s oldest continuously existing brand.
Transparent it still is. It used to claim to be hypoallergenic and non-comedogenic, natural and original. Don’t look for these strap-lines on the new carton. They have disappeared; discretely and without fanfare. It is surely a wise move for the owner of a 200 year brand not to trumpet the words, “new, improved formula” on a product that is not only much loved but is used by people whose skin does not respond well to harsher soaps.
The list of ingredients, which once read like a cargo on John Masefield’s Quinquireme of Nineveh – a Pandora’s box of exotic sounding ingredients sourced from the far reaches of the British Empire, now includes PEG 4, BHT, CI 12940 and CI 47005 (respectively a dispersant, antioxidant and colour additives). Then there’s the new smell. Biscuits and linen replaced with a whiff that to my untutored nose is just too strong, redolent of pine disinfectant and the hospital waiting room. Other noses might detect a herbal note – perhaps not unpleasant – but just not the proper familiar Pears smell.
My wife and I both suffer from sensitive skin. My wife is allergic to PEG8 and its close relatives, so PEG4 is a no-no. Ah well, that’s goodbye then to Pears Soap after 100 bath years of use in this household?
Not being one to take these things lying down, I called the 0800 customer service number on the box. Disconnected. Undeterred, I googled the name on the box, CERT Brands in Rotherham and found a telephone number where, I reasoned, I might be able to talk to a brand manager. I spoke with a nice lady, the receptionist. No, she said, nobody else had complained so far. She made careful, precise notes of my comments. Yes, yes, somebody would call me back shortly.
A month later, I am still waiting.
Let’s face it, when you are a busy, important brand manager (I mean, the manager of an important brand), the last thing you want to do is talk to a disgruntled consumer. That’s what you have receptionists for.
Am I really the only consumer to have noticed? Not according to the author of Wikipedia’s entry on Pears Soap: “In 2009 the formula was changed to take out the peanut oil that it contained and adding other ingredients like more glycerin. This unfortunately completely changed the smell and texture of the soap, making it unrecognizable from the original product.”
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the concave shape of the soap is [presumably, was] formed by shrinkage while the soap is drying, and is not due to deliberate moulding. To quote Wikipedia again, “Recent changes to quality of ingredients used in the manufacturing process have resulted in a noticeably different shape (flatter rather than concave) and difference in scent.”
So, is there a lesson in here for much loved 200 year old brand managers (I mean the managers of much loved 200 year old brands)? It should be that you tinker with your brand at your peril. My experience thus far tells me that there is little chance that this message is going to get through. The only real sanction we consumers have at our disposal is to vote with our feet (and hands and faces) and stop using it. If too many did that, it might finish what others have already started and kill off the brand completely.
After 200 years that would be much more than a great pity, it would be a disaster.