Thought Leadership

How to sell more toothpaste

By Colin Walls

I am always interested in stories about people having bright ideas, doing business better or offering outstanding service, and I have written about this kind of thing here before. Normally, I prefer such stories to be my own personal experiences, but I want to tell one today that is a legend. Whether it is really true or not, I cannot verify, but it has an intrinsic simplicity from which I am sure we can all learn.

Back in the 1950s, this guy approached one of the large toothpaste manufacturers and said that he had an innovation which would cost them almost nothing to implement, but would yield an immediate 40% increase in business. He offered to sell them the exclusive rights to the idea for $100,000. This was a huge sum at the time, but, given the high volume of toothpaste sales, it would be recouped rapidly.

However, the executives of the company were greedy and would not spend such money if it could be avoided. They thanked the guy and said they would get back to him. A big meeting of the company’s marketing and technical staff was called and they were tasked with proposing ideas for increasing business by 40% for little cost.

Two weeks later and no useful ideas had emerged. So, they called back the guy and said he had got a deal. After the legal niceties were completed and the money handed over, he gave them a brown envelope containing a small slip of paper. On this slip were the words: “Make the hole bigger.”

If you increase the diameter of the hole from 5mm to 6mm, the volume of paste squeezed out for a given length of squirt along the brush is increased by 40%. So, most users will consume the tube that much faster and need to buy more …

Now, I have this idea for a revolutionary toothbrush design, but I will save that for another day.


12 thoughts about “How to sell more toothpaste
  • Really Gr8 idea… sometime very simple and sometime simplistic ideas make a big benefit… You might heard abt one of the biggest cosmetic companies of Japan that they received a complaint by a customer against receiving an empty soap box. A huge technical and management meeting was called and investigated the reason how empty soap box reached in the market. Finally they learned that this defect happened in packaging sector so they invoked highly technical efforts of Engineers to make such a robust and reliable system that not even a single box pass empty during packaging. So, engineers redesigned the whole system and made a great surveillance system costing million of Yen. But, the same problem took birth in India also. In a small soap manufacturing company, similar frequent complaints were recorded. So, the manufacturer solved this problem with thousand fold simplicity and thousands time less amount… He just bought a large industrial fan and placed it against soap boxes. Empty boxes flew awy and soap carrying boxes would move ahead for storage. 😀 😀

      • The toothpaste story is told again and again but is of course fictional. If something technical as stated would increase usage (humans are intelligent animals – both before and after the hole change they would adjust their squeeze to keep the output constant) the consumers would of course resent the frequency and cost of replacing their toothpaste. Presumably a company would contract to pay not for an idea but rather the results of executing the idea, so they wouldn’t be out of pocket on the story either.

  • Yonatan:
    I have no idea whether the toothpaste story is really true or not, but that is not the point. It is just about credible and, thus, serves to illustrate that simple ideas can come from imaginative thinking.

  • I commented because of the American pen, Russian pencil idiot. The US designed a zero-gravity pen because the graphite of pencils will float off into your electronics and life support systems and short them. And then you’d be dead because you used a pencil in space.

  • Just to add to the space pen thing. It wasn’t the US itself that developed the space pen. It was a private company who did so, the Fisher Pen Company. NASA were using pencils in the beginning of their space program but had problems with them both because of flaking but also because they were flammable. So they searched for an alternative and found the space pen by the Fisher Pen Company and bought that in bulk. Right after that the russians who had the same problem with their pencils also bought the same pens from the same company, paying the same price as NASA did. And they have been using that line of pens ever since.

  • Thank you for this article. I am looking for more examples on these lines. Like how people/businesses increased their sales using such simple and cost-effective tactics. Can someone please give me any leads.

  • “this guy” << by the way, his name is Ohmae Kenichi, back then in the 50s LION (Japanese toothpaste company) OWNED the Japanese market, there weren't any more sales to be made, EVERYONE was using LION's toothpaste, they needed more funds to cover the failed product development (hair product), (so they don't have to lay people off) so Ohmae Kenichi came up with the diameter idea and saved the company, you can read the full documentation in one of his books.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at