Brazil's battle for the nation's billion dollar smile

By Katy Watson
BBC South America Business reporter

Image source, Andres Rodriguez / Alamy

I thought I had got used to how seriously Brazilians take cleanliness.

After all, showering twice a day is standard and even the most basic restaurant usually has an outside sink with soap and paper towels so you can wash your hands before you eat your lunch.

But I did get a shock when I used a cafe rest room a few months ago.

I pushed what I thought was the soap dispenser, but instead of a fragrant foam some minty liquid landed on my hands.

It was, in fact, mouthwash and looking around the bathroom, I spotted dental floss too.

"We smile a lot. Every time we ask something, we smile, we apologise smiling, people see their smile as their calling card," says Ronaldo Art, marketing manager for Oral Care at Johnson & Johnson in Brazil.

Image caption,
Listerine puts its mouthwash in public bathrooms as part of its tactic to increase market share

The company puts its Listerine mouthwash in public toilets for free so they can try the product.

One of the latest tactical moves by a global company to take a slice of Brazil's massive oral hygiene market, and it seems to be working.

In the past three years, Listerine says it has grown 11% in volume compared to 7% growth for the industry as a whole.

World's biggest beauty industry

Brazil has one of the fastest-growing beauty industries in the world. But it is not just the traditional products that are seeing success.

Research for the BBC carried out by international brand consultancy Millward Brown reveals that out of the top twenty most powerful foreign brands, three are for toothpaste - Colgate, Oral B, and Close-Up.

"Historically in Brazil if you had a nice smile, it would show you were a wealthy person," said Eduardo Campanella, brand director for oral care for Unilever in Brazil.

"Everybody in Brazil will have their toothbrush and their toothpaste in their purse. There is even a joke, if you see someone in the UK brushing their teeth in the toilet, no doubt he's Brazilian," he says.

Image source, / Alamy
Image caption,
Brazil has 15% of all dentists in the world

The future is flossing

Euromonitor International estimates that Brazil has the highest number of dentists in the world - more than 240,000. That is equivalent to 15% of the dentists in the entire world.

Overall, the dental market is number three in the world after the US and China.

And a Brazilian household would spend nearly the same amount on oral care as a US household, even though economic productivity, or wealth, in Brazil is a fifth of that in the United States.

While the dental care market is strong, it is also competitive.

"The industry is getting cluttered by the day, so there are lots of offers and it's about how you stand out and break the clutter with your offering," says Mr Campanella.

"The man in the house will have his deodorant, and the woman will have her deodorant. For oral care, it's still very much a family usage."

Unilever is trying to segment the market to make toothpaste less of a family product and more of a personal one.

Some products are now pink and glittery which the company hopes will attract more women, and whitening toothpaste is being marketed to coffee and wine drinkers.


Image caption,
Brazil's oral healthcare market is big but competitive

Despite the market being healthy, it is not without surprises.

In 2009, Johnson & Johnson decided to target the emerging middle classes of Brazil. This segment of the population was not using mouthwash as much as richer Brazilians, so the company introduced a more affordable product called Essencial. A lot of was spent on advertising to explain the relevance of mouthwash to these consumers.

But what the company found was that wealthier Brazilians, not the market they were targeting, were buying this new mouthwash instead.

When Johnson & Johnson did some research, they found that it was not the price that had been putting off new consumers, it was in fact the strong flavour of Listerine.

So they ended up launching a less intense mouthwash called Listerine Zero. A new product, but one that came about partly by accident.

And international corporations are quickly moving to ramp up their presence in new categories.

When Unilever launched a range of stain removers, the company had an idea of how well it would sell. "It was double," says Marcos Angelini, the homecare vice-president at Unilever Brazil.

"The demand started to build up in a way that I needed to stop the roll-out," he said. "I needed to launch in one region, and then open in another region in the country because we just couldn't cope with demand."

Growing market

So what about the future? Brazil is no longer the fast-growing economy it once was. Economic activity has stagnated this year, and is forecast to do so in 2015.

"Brazil is still seen as a growth market, whereas countries in Western Europe and North America have experienced slower growth," says Marcel Motta of Euromonitor International. "This is an industry where all the largest European and North American brands are here and I think they will continue to come."