Colgate Product Intro Wilts

Colgate-Palmolive’s big launch this year, Wisp, is losing some of its bite.

Wisp, the company’s bid to create a new beachhead in oral care among on-the-go Gen Yers, performed well when the disposable toothbrush was released in April, but sales have fallen off since then.

Sales started strong. By July 12, Wisp logged $9.3 million in sales, per IRI. (Such data includes only food, drug and mass merchandise stores.) In its first month alone, the product carved out “nine market share points,” Colgate CEO Ian Cook said during an analyst presentation in May. (Colgate reps declined further comment for this story.)

But since then, analysts tracking the product say sales have slowed. Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Ali Dibadj said the product’s sales peaked at $2.9 million in the third four-week cycle he tracked, but fell to $1.9 million in the most recent period ending July 11. Dibadj’s research is based on the Nielsen Co. numbers and excludes data from Walmart stores and warehouse clubs.

Tom Vierhile, a research director who tracks new products at Datamonitor, said Wisp’s slowed momentum has also cost it shelf space. In the early stages, Wisp was “rather hard to pigeonhole,” and so, retailers carried it in the oral care, breath freshening and confectionary aisles. But with consumer interest waning, real estate has likewise diminished, which means that repeat sales just aren’t hitting the mark, he said. Tellingly, competitors haven’t released copycat products.

“It had a pretty good going out of the gate, but once this thing has been on the market for a year, the novelty will be gone,” he said. That’s what happened to Oral-B Brush Ups, which, following its launch in 2004, has settled into a small market niche.

While that might be bad news for Colgate, which spent $5 million advertising the product from April through June of this year (excluding online, per Nielsen), analysts say it’s also a reflection of a poor market for introducing bold new products.

Wisp, which averages $2.39 for a four-pack, was pitched as providing a “just brushed clean anytime, anywhere” feeling for young people. Ads for the product, via Young & Rubicam, New York, show a woman pulling out the toothbrush just before her date gets into the car and warns, “Don’t get caught without it.”

The entry was an attempt to create a new category—portable oral care—or at least take market share away from products like gum and mints. In the same May analyst presentation, Cook described it as “an exciting new entry that capitalizes on a behavior that people do; [it] just provides it in a different offering.”

Unfortunately, the launch came in a year where the most successful new products like Olay Pro-X or Always Infinity are brand extensions or new formulations of familiar names. “It’s almost like back to the future,” said Herb Walter, a retired partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers. He added: “A few years ago, you may have heard of new products or fancier ways of packaging old products,” but now, the emphasis is on “what consumers have been comfortable with and grown up with over the years.”

Susan Viamari, editor of IRI’s Times & Trends report, said her research shows that “consumers are shying away from experimenting,” which explains why marketers are less likely to try new risks.

Less than 10 percent of new products introduced in 2008 were “net new brands,” she said, although the level of new product activity is on par with the average five-year trend. Datamonitor research, however, shows that U.S. product intros dropped 1.1 percent through July of this year compared to the same period in 2008.