By  on January 19, 2007

On a particularly balmy afternoon in December, Sasha Frere-Jones, a music critic for The New Yorker, meandered between photographs of famous faces, commenting on why each celebrity pictured — from Oprah to comedian Sarah Silverman — was a mouthpiece of social change.

Frere-Jones was hired to use his mouth to lend credence to Brilliant Smiles, a photo exhibit contrived by Rembrandt. The oral care brand was out to shed its clinical heritage by elevating teeth whitening to, well, an art.

Apparently, it's not enough for oral care products to brush and buff teeth into a healthy, gleaming white state. Consumers, at least in the view of leading brands in the arena, need to feel an emotional pull toward their toothpaste and at-home teeth-whitening kits.

The pull at consumers' heart strings comes as sales of the once white-hot category, ignited in large part by Procter & Gamble's Crest Whitestrips in 2001, have begun to cool.

Dental accessories, which include cleaning tools, floss, oral pain relief and whitening kits, generated sales of $796 million in 2005 in the mass market (excluding Wal-Mart), down from a six-year high of $841 million in 2003, according to the tracking firm Mintel International.

Sales of teeth-whitening kits in the mass market dropped 26.6 percent during the same period.

This year, both Rembrandt and Crest, along with several niche players, are aiming to reignite growth in the segment by making teeth whitening less clinical and, more importantly, less of a hassle.

Rembrandt, which Johnson & Johnson purchased from The Gillette Co. in October 2005, has built its entire repositioning strategy on the premise that "the mouth is more powerful than the teeth." The move is intended to push brand sales up roughly 40 percent this year.

To shift its oral care products from a commodity (on par with toilet paper and hand soap) to an emotional purchase, the brand opted for apothecary-inspired packaging and adopted the tag line, "Rembrandt Oral Health and Beauty: Take care of your mouth, it can be brilliant."

In late November, Rembrandt unveiled its newly exposed emotional side here through a Times Square billboard, which featured a tender kiss between a man and woman."The effort starts with how she feels about her mouth," said Hugh Dineen, executive group director of marketing for Rembrandt, referring to the female shopper. "The mouth tends to be more about hygiene. We're trying to change that. It's important for the brand to be provocative. The billboard starts the journey for people to start thinking about their mouth in a different way."

It introduced the campaign, created by Mother New York, in early November with eight-page gatefold ads in a number of magazines, including Vanity Fair and W (both of which are owned by Condé Nast Publications, as is The New Yorker.) The ad mixes images of iconic mouths, including Ella Fitzgerald and Lucy from Peanuts, with new photography shot by fashion photographers Richard Burbridge and Nathaniel Goldberg.

Before P&G's Crest Whitestrips burst onto the scene in 2001, Rembrandt sold at-home teeth-whitening trays in the mass market at a premium price. Its new lineup, slated to launch in February, includes Whitening Strips, Whitening Touch Up Pen and the 2-Hour White Kit.

Rembrandt isn't the first to attempt to give teeth whitening a dose of emotion. Crest Whitestrips now bills itself as a beauty brand, and upstream GoSmile — best known for its tiny ampules filled with tooth-whitening solution — partnered with Sephora to coin the phrase "smile beauty." Sephora was so taken with the concept that it officially named the "smile" its fifth retail pillar in March 2005, adding to its established categories of makeup, skin care, fragrance and hair care.

"We do believe in the notion of innovative oral care," with products that have measurable results, said Betsy Olum, senior vice president of marketing at Sephora. "Every client who walks through our doors, whether it's a man or a women, is concerned about teeth," she declared. "Teeth are a big indicator of age." Currently, Sephora's oral care category consists solely of GoSmile, which has grown its business in the specialty chain by 50 percent since 2003, according to Olum. She noted that she has not seen an influx of dentist-backed product lines making a bid for this space.

In recent years a number of unexpected retailers, including Nordstrom, Bath & Body Works, Victoria's Secret and Ulta, have dabbled in the category.GoSmile, developed by Manhattan dentist Jonathan Levine, has also managed to grab real estate in Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom and Ulta, as well as handful of spas, salons and wineries. "We've proved that prestige can have an oral care category," said Dr. Levine. "We've evolved GoSmile from smile beauty to overall health and wellness through the smile."

GoSmile has broadened its reach through an infomercial that began airing last summer and a recent appearance on Home Shopping Network. The ability to demonstrate its wares separates GoSmile from its mass market counterparts, said Stacey Levine, co-founder and president of GoSmile. "[Prestige] retailers have decided to demonstrate the value of the smile, rather than have a large portfolio of brands," Levine said, commenting on why high-end retailers have not gone more deeply into the category. GoSmile has nine products slated for this year, including Zen Toothpaste for Sensitive Teeth.

Fellow Manhattan dentist Pia Lieb has gained entry into several Limited Brands' nameplates, including Henri Bendel and Victoria's Secret, by combining teeth whitening with cosmetics. Referring to her dual-ended whitening and lip gloss wand called Sexy Smile, Dr. Lieb said, "I wanted to offer something that's edgy but basic enough that you can't live without it." Dr. Lieb, who is slated to appear on QVC in March, has several patent-pending products in the works, including a lip plumping version, a nighttime whitener coupled with a lip balm, a twist-up whitener for men and a maintenance toothpaste. She noted that whitening procedures at her practice are up 20 percent over the prior year.

The well-heeled may be choosing to have their teeth lasered white at the dentist's office, but mass market players are bent on enticing more consumers to use their at-home kits.

The appeal of pearly white teeth seems universal, but only a small percent of consumers have tried a whitening treatment. Citing a Gallup Study, Dineen of Rembrandt said that while about 70 percent of people surveyed said they want a whiter smile, only 7 percent actually use a whitening product.

Crest Whitestrips, which has a 70 percent share of the whitening strips market, also has ambitions to expand the whitening user base. To date, approximately 30 million consumers have tried Crest Whitestrips, fueling retail sales of $250 million, said David Dintenfass, associate marketing director of Global Whitening for P&G."Our goal is to find a new consumer," said Dintenfass, "I think there is room to bring in several million consumers a year."

To reach those shoppers, P&G aims to making teeth whitening faster and easier with Crest Whitestrips Daily Multicare. The $39.99 item, which is slated to launch in March, contains whitening strips designed to be worn for five minutes at a time.

"This is the same strip delivery system as the original Crest Whitestrips that we invented six years ago, but it's the first strip formulated for daily use," said Dr. Robert Gerlach, principal scientist in Worldwide Clinical Investigations at P&G. In addition to removing stains, the strips are designed to protect teeth from stain buildup from "daily assaults," like coffee and red wine.

Crest will initially introduce the daily strips, which brings the Whitestrips portfolio to five kits, through a print advertising campaign that launches in March consumer books. Taking a page from skin care, the ads declare: "For dazzling appeal, do the daily five-minute peel."

Dr. Gerlach, who claims to have whitened the teeth of more than 10,000 people, noted that Whitestrips were originally conceived as a treatment that could be done while showering in the morning, in a bid to integrate the product into the daily grooming regimen.

Dintenfass remarked, "This product will be a big step in making whitening something people do everyday."

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