The Great Pears Soap Disaster

The Great Pears Soap Disaster

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 Great Pears Soap Disaster :: spot the imposter

Pears Transparent Soap :: Before and After

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 acccording 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.

293 comments on “The Great Pears Soap Disaster

    I use the mint extract version called germshield but I did use the gentle care but had no reaction to it though I grew up with the soap in the ’90s it has changed since way back then .

  2. Ashish says:

    I was searching if I was the only one with burnt skin and I found this page. I have been using Pears soap since my childhood and loved the soap. I found the Soap in the Dollar Tree and after shower the corner of my eyes were severely burned (you could see curved black line around both of my eyes. I ignored it and started using another soap brand. I recently bought Pears again and it did exactly the same. This time it not only burned skin around my eyes but also both sides of the skin on my Nostrils – Black spots right away.

    What the heck is this? I am thinking of reporting them to be reported. What have they changed?

    • Pete Finch says:

      You found this product in a discount store? Tree for a dollar? It looks like it may have disappeared from supermarkets in my part of Australia but now that people are getting skin irritations it could be “the end.”

  3. Rod says:

    No, you are not the only one!!

    My eye was caught by a new green Pears soap in Superdrug today which I bought without studying the box (no specs…) I recalled that Pears was gentle and didn’t have SLS in its make-up.

    Completely shocked when I got home, unpackaged said soap to find a list of chemistry set ingredients including the dreaded SLS, soap looks v synthetic green, and not made in England – but India.

    Later saw in Morrison’s they are selling this at a reduced price….surprise surprise.

    Tried to find a customer support centre for Pears and all there seems to be is a facebook page.

    Pears – not impressed….

    • Pete Finch says:

      How long can this brand last? It’s just a disaster now isn’t it.

      In Queensland (Australia) last month the 3 pack of transparent was half price at one of the major supermarket chains, so $A3 instead of $A6.29. A month later, a single cake is $A2.99 while the 3 pack is $A6.29.

      I would still be buying the product because I like people guessing what my aroma is, but when a single cake lasts less than a fortnight, it’s just not good value when production costs in India are considered. I will happily pay the retail price for a product that truly reflects a recognised and established brand but Pears is now just a fraudulent misrepresentation.

  4. rich says:

    Used to use this as a child in the 80’s growing up with my Grandmother. There was a bar on the bath tub and sink. Very recently had a nasty skin reaction after using a bar in the shower (I ran out of shower gel) skin rash on face and under arms was the result. Have heard some of the additives now incorporated are the cause. Such a shame I that this is now just a hand soap for me

  5. Amanda Andrews says:

    I have a question if somebody could help. I am positive Pears made a herbal soap 20 to 30 years ago called Pears Herbal Soap. It was yellow in colour & not translucent. I would like someone to confirm I am not going crazy and this product actually existed. If anyone can help I would be most appreciative.

    • Hello Amanda,

      Unilever Sri Lanka makes a “Pears Herbal Soap”. If you search “Unilever” and “Sri Lanka” in your search engine, the home page has a “Brands” tab and thereunder “Pears”.

      Martin Suenson

  6. Pete Finch says:

    Jim, it’s the “tradition” that’s kept the brand around for 200 years. There was one product and that was the brand.

    Progress is finding ways to extend the product range and grow the brand, not tamper with the core product until it barely resembles its heritage and the reason for the existence of the brand.

    It’s pretty basic marketing that whoever makes the stuff now have ignored.

    I tried the green or is it blue option (only one colour variant in Australia) and it’s nothing special at all. Even less of the “Pearsaroma” and useful life seems even less than the amber.

    Tinkering with the product is not progress.

  7. Jim says:

    I like the new formula. Just because something is 200 years old does not make it better. This new formula still has solid positive reviews. It’s called progress!

    • Roland says:

      You are right Jim, the age of the formula does not make better.

      The old formula is just better in every way……..except perhaps, profitability!

      I can’t imagine anyone trying both formulas, side by side, would say otherwise.

      My wife has a severe reaction to the new formula and develops flu like symptoms. My brother-in-law used it to control his eczema, the new formula makes his skin condition worse!

      Now that’s progress!

      • The great sadness for me is that like with everything British, Pears is disappearing and I mean literally!!

        Shame on everyone responsible, it is no longer clear or translucent, it no longer is the same size as it has been for hundreds of years, but it is a lot more expensive!!!!!

        I rest content that as the changes roll in even great names like this will disappear in the changes that are coming,and many a person will wish and pray for the days gone by, but I fear it will be too late for the soap and for us too.

  8. Pete Finch says:

    I’ve bought some of this product recently as it’s been discounted in some supermarkets and pharmacy chains however it’s not widely available anymore. (It was around $A6 but when it’s available it’s $A4.95 for the box of 3.)

    It’s the same “new” smell and it does use up much more quickly too, about three times faster than a boring bar of Palmolive.

    • NABA says:

      Thank you for your answer 🙂

    • Susan says:

      Agree with previous comments – the current Pears is lighter colour, lighter scent, smaller and does not last as long….almost totally walmartized.

    • Pete Finch says:

      Something may be happening! Will it be good or bad news? I bought a box of 3 Psuedo Pears Transparent made by the people of Unilever Hindustan but the pack was a long one with the soaps packed standing up side by side. Stilll priced at $A4.99 too.

      But why the new box? Could this mean a relaunch, maybe “all new and improved the way it used to be Pears?” Pity I can’t post the image here but fingers crossed, we Pears diehards may be rewarded for our patience, persistence and pedantics for Pears.

  9. NABA says:


    I have to write a marketing assignment, and I would like to focus on Pears’ soap disaster. I would like to ask you whether the formula is still unchanged (they use the new formula). The comments here are rather old, so it’s why I am asking. The internet also gives old articles about the soap.

    Thank you for your help.

    • Jane says:

      Yep, despite all the flack they’ve basically gone on making the new formula, though they seem to have toned the “perfume” down slightly (others may beg to differ). I’m not certain.

    • greyhares says:

      As Jane suggests, they may have adjusted the perfume a little but nothing else has changed as far as I can tell from the packaging.

      I don’t know if you have a title for your assignment Narba but suggest something along the lines of “If Multinationals are beyond the reach of most governments (ref the tax arrangements of Google, Apple, Starbucks, etc…. ) should we be surprised when they are utterly impervious the views of their consumers?

    • James says:

      Hi NABA,

      you may want to mention the marketing history of Pears, as the brand was largely built on advertising. You may find the section on Pears soap in the book ‘Brand Failures’ of interest (ignore the date of 1789; the date that Andrew Pears moved to London. Pears transparent soap was first produced in 1807):

      “Failing to hit the present taste

      “Pear’s Soap was not, by most accounts, a conventional brand failure. Indeed, it was one of the longest-running brands in marketing history.

      “The soap was named after London hairdresser Andrew Pears, who patented its transparent design in 1789. During the reign of Queen Victoria, Pear’s Soap became one of the first products in the UK to gain a coherent brand identity through intensive advertising. Indeed, the man behind Pear’s Soap’s early promotional efforts, Thomas J Barratt, has often been referred to as ‘the father of modern advertising.’

      “Endorsements were used to promote the brand. For instance, Sir ErasmusWilson, President of the Royal College of Surgeons, guaranteed that Pear’s Soap possessed ‘the properties of an efficient yet mild detergent without any of the objectionable properties of ordinary soaps.’ Barrat also helped Pear’s Soap break into the US market by getting the hugely influencial religious leader Henry Ward Beecher to equate cleanliness, and Pear’s particularly, with Godliness. Once this had been achieved Barratt bought the entire front page of the New York Herald in order to show off this incredible testimonial.

      “The ‘Bubbles’ campaign, featuring an illustration of a baby boy bathed in bubbles, was particularly successful and established Pear’s as a part of everyday life on both sides of the Atlantic. However, Barratt recognized the ever changing nature of marketing. ‘Tastes change, fashions change, and the advertiser has to change with them,’ the Pear’s advertising man said in a 1907 interview. ‘An idea that was effective a generation ago would fall flat, stale, and unprofitable if presented to the public today. Not that the idea of today is always better than the older idea, but it is different – it hits the present taste.’

      “Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Pear’s remained the leading soap brand in the UK. However, towards the end of the century the market was starting to radically evolve.

      “In an October 2001 article in the Guardian, Madeleine Bunting charted our love affair with soap:

      “Over the past 100 years, soap has reflected the development of consumer culture. Some of the earliest brand names were given to soap; it was one of the first mass-produced goods to be packaged and the subject of some of the earliest ad campaigns. Its manufacturers pioneered market research; the first TV ads were for soap; soap operas, tales of domestic melodrama, were so named because they were often sponsored by soap companies. Soap made men rich – William Hesketh Lever, the 33-year-old who built Port Sunlight [where Pear’s was produced], for one – and it is no coincidence that two of the world’s oldest and biggest multinationals, Unilever and Procter & Gamble, rose to power on the back of soap.
      Recently though, Bunting argued, a change has emerged. The mass-produced block has been abandoned for its liquid versions – shower gels, body washes and liquid soap dispensers. ‘In pursuit of our ideal of cleanliness, the soap bar has been deemed unhygienic,’ she claimed.

      “Of course, this was troubling news for the Pear’s Soap brand and, by the end of the last century, its market share of the soap market had dropped to a low of 3 per cent. Marketing fell to almost zero. Then came the fatal blow.

      “On 22 February 2000 parent company Unilever announced it was to discontinue the Pear’s brand. The cost-saving decision was part of a broader strategy by Unilever to concentrate on 400 ‘power’ brands and to terminate the other 1,200. Other brands for the chop included Radion washing powder and Harmony hairspray.

      “So why had Pear’s lost its power? Well, the shift towards liquid soaps and shower gels was certainly a factor. But Unilever held onto Dove, another soap bar brand, which still fares exceptionally well. Ultimately, Pear’s was a brand built on advertising and when that advertising support was taken away, the brand identity gradually became irrelevant. After years of staying ahead, Pear’s Soap had failed to ‘hit the present taste’ as Thomas J Barratt might have put it.

      “Lessons from Pear’s

      “Every brand has its time. Pear’s Soap was a historical success, but the product became incompatible with contemporary trends and tastes.

      “Advertising can help build a brand. But brands built on advertising generally need advertising to sustain them.”

      You may also find the key points below of some interest:


      “Unilever’s Market Capitalization of about £ 51 Billion (~ $ 82 Billion) in
      June 1999 shrank to £ 20 Billion by January 2000 (Stock prices

      “Company’s Existing brand structure had lost its Focus (Too many

      “Unilever was criticized for spending large amounts of funds due to
      frequent restructuring over the years

      “Unilever’s market share was taking a big time hit (Dip)

      “There was no fit between the company’s organizational structure and
      its strategies (Persil Power shook the giant to its foundations)

      “It was believed that every big organization that is running into trouble
      needs a crisis to convince it of the necessity for fundamental change,
      and that for Unilever this situation had already arrived long ago

      “2000 TO 2004


      “In February 2000, the company announced a € 5 Billion Five –
      Year Growth Strategy

      “Unilever was “Shrinking to Grow”

      “Laying off over 25,000 employees (~10% of the employee

      “Unilever was split into two, separate global units : Foods and
      Home & Personal Care (HPC), headed by two executive
      Directors separately

      “Unilever reorganized its 300 operating companies into 10
      Regional Groups

      “Unilever Further Decentralized its Control over its subsidiaries

      “Unilever Shut down more than 100 manufacturing units for
      cost reduction

      “More than half of its Top Executives were replaced with young

      “Brand Portfolio of 1,600 was pruned to 400 (For better focus
      on leading brands)

      “Company came up with a Brand Focus Strategy “Nourishing the

      “Unilever started to exploit brands within the existing product
      categories but outside their scope”

      Of course, the moving of production to India, and the subsequent reformulating of the product certainly didn’t endear the company, or it’s subsidiary Hindustan Unilever to the public. Pears may still exist as a brand, but the product is no longer something that Andrew Pears would have been happy to lend his name to:

      “Like many Victorian small businesses, it catered to a particular class of customer, whom it respected and wished to please. Andrew Pears was a cautious man, and he cared more for the quality of the products that bore his name than the number of people who bought them. Dogged by inferior imitations, at one stage he even went so far as to sign personally every package he sold.”

      Anyhow, I hope that this is of some use to you. Good luck with your assignment.


      • NABA says:

        Thank you very much for your long and detailed answer! I can use a great deal from it!
        Just one more question: if the production of Pears’ was to be stopped, than why bother to change the formula and even move the production to India?

        Best regards,

        • James says:

          You’re welcome, NABA. The aforementioned book states that Unilever had announced that it was to discontinue the Pears brand. However, I suspect that the author may have misinterpreted the newspaper reports, if they were indeed his sources of information. If we look at the newspaper reports, they do not mention anything about the brand being discontinued, only that Unilever was ditching, or washing it’s hands of the it:

          The Guardian, Wednesday 23 February 2000

          “Yesterday Unilever washed its hands of Pears saying it was not one of its 400 “power” brands on which the future of the group will be built.”

          The Guardian, Wednesday 23 February 2000

          “Unilever is to chop 25,000 jobs and shut 100 factories worldwide as part of a huge restructuring to improve competitiveness.

          “Most of the jobs will go in Europe and North America alongside the ditching of 1,200 of its 1,600 brands, including household names such as Pear’s soap, Radion washing powder and Jif lemons.”

          It isn’t made clear in the articles what the “ditching” of Pears entailed. Pears soap continued to be produced after 2000, suggesting that the brand was sold to another company, namely Hindustan Unilever, a subsidiary of Unilever which now owns Pears. The source below also suggests that the unwanted brands and businesses were sold off:

          “In 2000, company’s biggest acquisition by far was Bestfoods

          “It took total company sales to $52 billion a year

          “Bestfoods brought some leading brands into the fold like Knorr and Hellman’s

          “40% of Unilever sales is from outside North America, an ideal fit with the globalized Unilever

          “1,000 of the brands delivered only 8% of total company sales

          “The collateral damage was that 100 of the 350 factories would go along with 25,000 employees

          “Only a year later the company portfolio was down to 900 brands as 87 businesses were sold off


          “Twelve brands had sales in excess of €1 billion

          “Approximately two-thirds of total sales derived from brands larger than €0.5 billion

          “That is no mean feat given a starting point of 1,600 brands

          “Knorr, the company’s largest brand, was sold in over 100 countries

          “Dove, Signal and Pepsodent were all relaunched

          “The Pro-Activ cholesterol-lowering spread was extended into other dairy categories

          “The ever-reliable Sunsilk grew by double digits

          “The €1 billion+ R&D programme had been realigned behind the new Vitality agenda

          “It registered 370 patents in the year

          “The Latin American region had an underlying sales growth in the year

          “All the unwanted brands and businesses were being sold off

          “For the first time since its formation, Unilever would have one chairman, one board, one CEO with one executive team.

          “There would be two category presidents, one each for Foods, and for Home and Personal care (HPC), responsible for R&D, brand development and category development.

          “Alongside would be three regional presidents (Europe, The Americas, Asia/Africa, Middle East and Turkey)”

          I hope that this answered your question.


          • James says:

            You might also want to mention that it was around this time (2003 to be precise) that Cert Brands Ltd were awarded the distributorship of Pears soap for the UK and Europe. Various other sources state that it is also responsible for the marketing of Pears. To quote from their site:

            “The fascinating story continues; In 2003 Cert Brands Ltd are awarded the distributorship of Pears soap for the UK and Europe. Despite a loyal consumer following, Pears Soap had fallen out of favor during the eighties and nineties, with new dynamic brands dominating retailer’s shelves. Cert Brands realized that “heritage” brands such as Pears could still deliver volume and value for the brand owner by increasing their market presence without impacting on the market leader’s position.

            “Although some levels of investment are required, focus is the key element in extracting value from “heritage” brands. By concentrating on the iconic Amber bar, Cert Brand’s were able to focus limited support spend, and over an 18 month period re – establish listings with all the UK’s major retail chains. Volumes grew significantly and additional sales channels established. Amber Bar became the fastest growing tablet soap brand in the UK.

            “With sales increasing significantly, both consumers and the trade were demanding new Pears products – a very different story from a few years prior. In a very short time, a liquid Hand Wash was introduced. This product gained 100% distribution within the major grocery retailers and was followed by Shower Gel which has also been a great success.

            “Over the next few years a rolling program of new product launches will add to the Pears family and help ensure that the Pears Story continues for future generations.”


            The brand continues to be a success, due to the use of strategies such as product diversification and cost cutting, but largely at the expense of the continuity of the product that helped to build the brand in the first place. Pears Transparent Soap may still exist in name, but the product is virtually unrecognisable from the original. Hindustan Unilever are essentially selling a poor imitation of the original Pears; something which the father of the brand had gone to great lengths to avoid.

            Hopefully you now have plenty of material to use for your assignment.


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