The breath strips revolution

The breath strip, also known as mouth freshening strip, category was created by Pfizer’s Warner-Lambert consumer healthcare division in August 2000 with the development of Listerine PocketPaks Breath Freshening Strips, although they did not hit supermarket shelves until October 2001.

This product consists of 24 small pieces of ‘tape’, packaged in a carry case, which dissolve on the tongue releasing an intense minty flavour designed to freshen breath. The use of the Listerine brand and formula means that Pfizer can position PocketPaks as amouth freshening product which kills oral bacteria.

The product category, whichgenerated sales around the US$250 million mark in 2002 and is worth about half of the global mouth fresheners sector, has so far proved explosively popular. PocketPaks have spawned a plethora of similar products although it remains the leading mouth freshener brand with retail sales of over US$160 million in 2002.

Evolution of breath strips

Initial PocketPaks development was followed by the launch of Myntz! Instastripz by Vitech America in May 2001. A similar product in terms of design, the brand is promoted as more cool and less medicinal than PocketPaks, with the tag-line “when you get close, be fresh, not a medicine chest”.

Drygel Inc’s Gel-A-Mint Sugar Free MagikStrips were launched in July 2002 in the US, followed by Wrigley’s Eclipse Flash Strips in September 2002. Private label brands also quickly sprang up, led by drugstore franchise Walgreens’ entry to the category in May 2002 with its Walgreens Fresh Breath. Other private label offerings included Wal-Mart Equate Sugar Free Breath Strips in September, CVS chain drugstore’s eponymous CVS Breath Strips in October and Albertson’s Inc’s Savon/Osco Sugar-Free Breath Strips in November of 2002.

Meanwhile the first few months of 2003 witnessed the launch of similar products around the world including peppermint paper disks from Küchle in Germany, mint strips from Dreamax Global Development in China and Tongue Tape, which is specifically aimed at children, from the toy maker Jakks Pacific in the US. In April even Altoids (Kraft) launched a breath strip in an effort to revive sales.

Breath strips revolutionise the mouth fresheners sector

Oral hygiene sales have been sluggish over the review period, achieving just over 1% global growth in the 1997-2002 period. To boost sales toothpaste manufacturers in particular have launched a number of dental gums which have proved popular, including Aquafresh (GlaxoSmithKline) and Arm & Hammer (Church & Dwight).

For Pfizer, which has a strong presence in mouthwashes but none in toothpaste, a different route was necessary. Therefore the concept of a portable mouthwash has been successfully cross-branded into the previously stagnant mouth freshener sector with the launch of PocketPaks.

Although US consumers have grown increasingly wary of cosmetic-oriented mouth fresheners and mouthwashes, fresh breath remains a primary concern. Breath strips tap into this by offering a discreet, convenient and fashionable alternative to traditional mouth fresheners such as sprays and drops, and revolutionised the previously stagnant US mouth fresheners sector upon their 2001 debut, with total category sales increasing nearly 540% between 2000 and 2002.

Mints are negatively impacted

Traditional mouth fresheners had initially been negatively impacted by the increase in sugar-free mints and gums, which were perceived as healthier and more effective. By contrast, there is evidence that the rise of breath strips has now exerted a downward pressure on the previously robust development of the mint market.

The latest research from Euromonitor demonstrates that in the US power mint sales were down nearly 2% in current value during 2002 as a result of the combined effects of sales cannibalisation from both sugar-free gums and breath strips. This was particularly remarkable given the strong growth of power mints only a year earlier.

Altoids sales have been particularly impacted by both sugar-free gums and breath strips as Altoids contain sugar. All told, Altoid value sales were down more than 10% in 2002. That said, many sugar-free power mints continue to do well simply because they are sugar-free and those that managed to see strong growth in 2002 despite the sector decline include Smint, Blitz, and Breath Savers Ice Breakers.

Gums likely to remain robust

Breath strips have also served to constrain sugar-free gum gains during 2002. While 2001 saw double digit growth, 2002 gains diminished to low single digits in contrast to previously high estimates for the sector. Although also due to natural maturation, this has been accelerated due to the influx of high-potency breath strips.

However, the continued and growing popularity of functional gums, including dental gums and leading brand Airwaves (Wrigley), demonstrates that the confectionery sector has been able to carve out a viable niche for itself in the general health and wellness trend.

Functional gums, in fact, are becoming an alternative battle-ground in the drive to increase sales of oral hygiene products by both building and leveraging brand equity. What remains to be seen is whether once the novelty value of breath strips wears off it will still be impacting confectionery sales. Breath strips lack the fun factor of gum, and the length of chewing time gum provides, with flavour lasting longer through new developments, gives it a significant advantage over strips, which are designed to dissolve almost instantly.

Wrigley could dominate sales by 2003

Since its 2001 tie-up with Procter & Gamble to produce functional gum, Wrigley has proven itself eager to embrace new product developments to increase sales. Wrigley’s Eclipse Flash Strips have been one of the most successful breath strip launches, having achieved retail sales of over US$70 million by the end of 2002.

Wrigley’s strength has been to replicate the successful PocketPak concept and format, and to leverage some of its key existing brands to promote the product and drive sales. In addition to Eclipse, this includes the international launch of Extra Thin Ice and then Winterfresh Thin Ice in the US in December 2002, all core gum brands.

Moreover, as with all of Wrigley’s recent promotional campaigns for its gums, the company has been at the forefront of running a ‘cool’ and trendy promotion, even including ‘talent’ grants for young people in the arts, fashion, film and music industries.

In fact, 2003 sales of breath strips could easily reach US$500 million if PocketPaks and Wrigley’s launches maintain the same rate of growth, with Eclipse Flash Strips potentially becoming the leading brand for the year.