Sunday, August 07, 2005

The New Formula

Some more fodder for a pet topic of mine, the new formula.

What gets my juices flowing is thinking about why it is that Crest no longer makes Smooth Mint Gel replacing it with a multitude of junk bundled with Scope mouthwash! I spend hours thinking about why so many companies these days are tinkering with the formula of their products, worsening things just slightly (but calling the result new and improved) and testing the waters to figure out just how cheap they can make things before it has an noticeable impact on the bottom line. Is that just run-of-the-mill capitalism at work or are we at a historical moment?
A year later I've come to grips with the loss of Smooth Mint Gel (although apparently a few toli readers are as peeved as me on the matter) but I continue to see the wider pursuit of the new formula as inexorable even if I am deeply skeptical. Some recent exhibits...

Pantene Pro-V

Pantene Pro-V conditioner has been given the "new and improved" treatment. It was rebranded and relaunched this spring. Now Pantene is marketed at women and it's not one of the things I use myself but I bought a bottle or two a while back as an attempt to make the apartment more congenial to certain parties. As someone with sensitive skin and hair, The Girlfriend Fiancee immediately pointed out the change.
"I don't know what they've done but it's much worse."
Sensible woman, she hoarded up a few bottles of the old formula that she could still find in shops that hadn't worked through their old inventory. As a historian, she made her prediction:
"Trust me, women are very sensitive to these things, it's not going to work."
She remarked a few months later that Pantene has been struggling. I didn't quite believe her at the time but then I've noticed of late when I pass through CVS or Walgreens that there are fire sales on the new conditioner. Pantene seems to be the only brand that is requiring constant discounts in order to move the product. Did a significant proportion of their clientele notice the change and switch to different products? I wonder if this is like the New Coke debacle albeit less publicized? So ladies, do you use Pantene these days? Did you notice this change and are you bothered? Should we be selling Procter & Gamble stock?

Oil of Olay body wash

Exhibit 2 in our "fiddling with what works" indictment is Oil of Olay sensitive skin body wash, something I settled on 6 years ago moving upmarket from bar soap into yuppiehood.

This one hit me just a couple of weeks ago and I want to nip it in the bud. As I reached up to pick up a replacement I noticed that there were 3 versions on the shelf. Hmmm...
  1. Olay Complete Body Wash Sensitive Skin Unscented
    the old faithful
  2. New Olay Complete Body Wash Sensitive Unscented
  3. New and Improved Olay Complete Body Wash Sensitive Skin Unscented Moisture
    This comes with a promotional package with some additional goodies to help the introduction.
At first I thought that this was just your garden-variety marketing subterfuge. First they dropped the "skin" in the "new" version, then in the "new and improved" version, the "skin" returned but now it is a matter of "Unscented Moisture".

What, I ask, is the difference between "Unscented" and "Unscented Moisture"?

Well consumer that I am, I tried all 3 and plainly put the "new" and the "new and improved" versions are worse - the latter version is horrible. Indeed I'm considering returning to plain old soap once I've worked my way through the extra bottles of the original formula that I promptly bought.

Luckily my local Walgreens still has to work through its old inventory and it it looks like the new formula hasn't been launched at the online shops (although I've never bought toiletries online).

If you were journalistically inclined and consulted the labels and the listed active ingredients, you would notice that they have been slowly reducing the amount of soybean oil, presumably replacing it with something cheaper. The labeling of such products is mostly a matter of obfuscation but still I noted that in the "new" version it is no longer "Maleated Soybean Oil", it's just "Soybean Oil". Per Google, maleation is the chemical process of forming a maleate, which is an ester or a salt of maleic acid. So perhaps a step in the manufacturing process was eliminated in the intermediate version. It turns out that in the "new and improved" version there is no trace of soybean oil, maleated or not.

Now as an armchair economist I wanted to test out this theory. I went to look at the charts for the price of soybean oil futures to see if there was any pattern I could discern that could account for the slash and burn of my body wash. The price of soybean, like many commodities has been slowly trending up over the past 5 years, I assume due to the ripple effect of higher transportation costs - everything comes back to oil again. However there must have been a huge shock to the system because in 2004 the price more than doubled in barely 6 months from about $16 to $35 per whatever the unit used in these contracts before returning to around $20 by year end. In 2005 the price has been trending higher to $25. Now I don't know what the lead time is for developing a new formula, but my current theory is that a bean counter decided that the volatility in the soybean oil market could no longer be countenanced and hence there was an imperative to tinker with the formula.

soybean prices 1997 - 2007

As a sidenote, why is it called Oil of Olay in the USA and Oil of Ulay everywhere else in the world? Is there some trademark dispute going on?

Now this is not to say that what we have is the be and end all of capitalism. I have an uncle who works at Dupont who has spent the best part of the past 25 years developing new compounds. Far be it from me to suggest that the world stand still. We have seen how advances in materials like titanium and graphite have changed the game of tennis and cycling to take just a few obvious applications of technological advances.

Belt-tightening sometimes needs to happen but companies often go too far. The crew on a recent United flight informed us that there would no longer be blankets distributed on their flights. Presumably by cutting on the laundry bill some jobs could be saved. But how about this assault on batteries?
The budget airline Ryanair today took its no-frills approach to new heights by banning its staff from charging their mobile phones at work.

In justifying a move likely to underline its Scrooge-like image, Europe's largest discount airline said it did not believe using a mobile phone charger at work was acceptable.
I work in an industry that wouldn't survive if we weren't marketing the new formula daily. Most users would argue that a lot of software could do with some new formula treatment.

But why can't they leave well enough alone? Why do they want to mess with my shower?

I would also mention the Phisoderm debacle, but that episode was too painful and I've managed (at length) to find a replacement. In any case, I should be all set for the next 6 months of showers, but Oil of Olay, I beg. Stop the nonsense.

Have you noticed any products going through the new formula treatment lately? Are they any better?

A Musical coda

The New Formula is the name of the 1992 album by Today. The thing though is that this, their sophomore album, was not as fulfilling or indeed as successful as their self-titled debut.


Producer Gene Griffen had broken up with Teddy Riley, who was the secret ingredient of the New Jack Swing movement and previous producer. Thus a whole cast of new producers was brought in including Dr Freeze fresh off his Bell Biv Devoe heroics. I suppose it's a decent album but I think the titles of the songs tell the ironic tale and quite apropos the advisability of messing with the formula. Stick to your core competency guys.

Oil of Olay are you listening? Don't you leave me. Why you get funky on me? Tell me why.

See also: Why the Red Delicious No Longer Is for a discussion about the taste of apples. An apple may look red and succulent, but it shouldn't look the same 6 months after it has been harvested.

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orchid lover said...

I think maybe the same holds true for insect repellent- "OFF" brand we have in Ghana doesn't seem to work the way it used to...or perhaps the mosquitoes have evolved...

Anonymous said...

Random website:
"Over the years the brand was called by many different names depending on region (Oil of Olay, Olez, Ulay, Ulag and Ulaz), causing confusion and increasing production costs on packaging and print. Two years ago when the copyrights ran out on the different marks, P&G was able to standardize the name to Oil of Olay and create global consistency. Last year, P&G went a step further and removed the Oil in favor of the single word, Olay, to avoid any association with greasiness."

Anonymous said...

And I thought I was the only one trying to get to the bottom of things... thank you for the insightful journey into the Soybean futures, based on a change of ingredient.

I love investigative reporting :)

Anonymous said...

I have been using Pantene for the past 7 years (at least) and was also very dissapointed with the new formula. It actually gives me a migraine! I have also gone out and bought as many as the old formula as I could but I would like to find more. I went to the Pantene website today to see if I could voice my complaint but I didn't see an option on the site.

If anyone knows where to find this "old formula" Pantene, please let me know.

Anonymous said...

Pantene, old or new formula I wouldn't touch it with a barge pole. After a few washes my scalp erupted and sore spots appeared. I found a product with far less chemicals and my head is fine, thank you. If a product is giving you migraine, you have to wonder how safe it is?