Sometime around 1892, a Connecticut dentist named Washington Sheffield—who'd introduced toothpaste to America in 1850—received a letter from his son, Lucius. While studying art in Paris, Lucius had watched realist painters squeezing their oils out of tin tubes and thought the container would be a novel way for his father to package his own product. The dentist agreed and began selling his Doctor Sheffield's Crème Dentifrice in tubes.
It's a great story of American innovation, and the reason nobody much remembers it is because, four years after Sheffield's dispenser debuted, a more established brand of toothpaste out of New York adopted the tube. That brand was Colgate.
While Procter & Gamble's Crest is the category leader—with a 34.2 percent share of the market, per Euromonitor—Colgate toothpaste, from Colgate-Palmolive, is the brand that has stood the test of time.
As New York dentist and media personality Thomas Connelly points out, toothpaste isn't much of a differentiated category. "It's a staple, it's habitual, and there are not a whole lot of benefits to changing," he noted. So why do people keep reaching for that red and white tube—to the tune of $314 million last year?
It's part timing, part marketing. Though challenger brands have chipped away at its dominance, Colgate has never surrendered the advantages that come with being first to market. (Samuel Colgate began selling his toothpaste in jars in 1873.) "It's the law of first in," said Adam Padilla, founder of consultancy BrandFire. "Colgate was the first, and they originated the tube. Once you have that foothold, you are the immovable piece that everyone else reacts to." Colgate didn't just popularize the tube—in 1908, it also added a rectangular opening that forced the paste out in a ribbon shape, a simple innovation that let Colgate position itself as the "ribbon dental cream" for years.
But innovation has also hurt Colgate. In 1955, when P&G introduced Crest—fortified with a magical ingredient called fluoride—it immediately bit off 10 percent of the market and, starting in 1960, would lead the category for the next three decades. (Colgate would finally add fluoride in 1968.)
Still, Colgate is seen as the stalwart brand, the inevitable brand, the family brand of toothpaste. And that's no accident. Because parents tend to introduce their kids to toothpaste and because adults usually buy the brands they remember from childhood, Colgate continues to enjoy a kind of pass-down popularity that's difficult to efface, Padilla pointed out.
"When you teach your kids, 'Daddy says use Colgate,' they'll stay with the brand," he said. "Once you're in there, you have that recognition. Attach 100 years of longevity to that and you're immovable."