Happy Accidents #061 - Listerine

It's not about the product; it's how you present it to the world.

Welcome to Happy Accidents, where we unravel the intriguing tales of unintentional successes.

Today's spotlight is on Listerine, a household name in oral care, whose journey from a surgical antiseptic to a mouthwash giant is nothing short of fascinating.

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Let's dig in, shall we?


This is the part of every Happy Accident story where we see every successful outcome starts with the person putting themselves in a favorable position. They work hard, they try new things, they meet new people. They're not just sitting around 'hoping' to be successful some day.

The medical field came a long way in the 19th century. More was being discovered about the complex human body and how to treat it. Doctors became more adept at performing various types of surgery.

But for all these advancements, a challenge was lingering.

There were significant issues with cleanliness in medical procedures. Lack of proper sterilization of surgical instruments, operating environments, and inadequate hand hygiene often led to infections and complications during surgeries.

Infections were a major concern, and postoperative mortality rates were high. During the late 19th century, various surgical antiseptics were being explored and utilized to prevent infections in medical procedures.

These substances were applied to wounds, surgical instruments, and operating environments to reduce the risk of bacterial contamination and infection during surgical procedures.

However, their effectiveness and safety varied, and the development of antiseptic practices continued to evolve during that period.

Then, in 1879 Dr. Joseph Lawrence concocted the first formulation of a new antiseptic known as ‘Listerine’.

Named after Sir Joseph Lister, a trailblazer in antiseptic surgery, Listerine was initially created as a surgical antiseptic to be used during medical procedures. Its antiseptic properties were aimed at reducing infections and promoting cleanliness in the surgical environment.

But as you’ve probably guessed by now, that’s not the end of the story…


This is the part of every success story where there's a chance encounter, a serendipitous moment, an unintentional discovery (or Happy Accident) that paves the way for the next steps. In some cases, a Happy Accident can even be disguised as something bad in the moment.

Listerine faced a stumbling block in the early 20th century. Despite its effectiveness in surgery, it struggled to gain traction in the medical field.

Financial challenges loomed over the Lambert Pharmacal Company, the owner of Listerine, in the 1920s.

In a stroke of marketing genius however, the company's advertising team decided to pivot. Listerine was rebranded as a remedy for "chronic halitosis" or bad breath.

The campaign cleverly played on social consequences (you can’t go around having bad breath, now can you?). Listerine was suggested as the obvious solution to this embarrassing issue.

And it turned out to be a genius move…


Just like Happy Accidents don't just fall into your lap (you need to set the stage first), they also don't turn into anything if you don't recognize them and take action. This is the part of every success story where we see people capitalizing on their Happy Accident.

The repositioning of Listerine struck a chord with the public. Sales skyrocketed as Listerine became synonymous with oral hygiene and fresh breath. Flavored varieties were even introduced, enhancing its consumer appeal.

The success of this rebranding is often credited to the Lambert Pharmacal Company's innovative marketing.

They didn't just sell a product; they created a new market, associating Listerine with personal hygiene and social acceptance.

A whole new industry was born.


Listerine, born in the operating room, found unexpected fame as a mouthwash, all thanks to a clever marketing pivot.

Its journey teaches us that sometimes, it's not just about the product; it's about how you present it to the world.

Listerine's accidental shift from antiseptic to oral care exemplifies the remarkable outcomes that can emerge from the unlikeliest of origins.

Check out this video that shows you 10 different ways to use Listerine 👇

Some fun facts:

  • The original formulation of Listerine contained alcohol, eucalyptus, and thyme. Its strong taste is a relic of its surgical antiseptic origins.

  • There’s a common misconception that halitosis, aka the condition of having bad breath, was “invented by Listerine,” but that’s not true; the first use of the word appears in an obscure 1874 article by physician Joseph William Howe titled The Breath, and the Diseases Which Give It a Fetid Odor.

  • By positioning itself as a beauty tool that a woman couldn’t afford to risk skipping, Listerine sales boomed. It rose from around $100,000 in 1921 to over $4 million in 1927.

  • Listerine was sold in glass bottles for almost the entire life of the product. The packaging barely changed throughout the years until 1994, when plastic bottles were introduced.

The lessons here:

  1. Adapt to Consumer Needs: Listerine's transformation teaches us the importance of adapting to consumer needs. Recognizing its struggles in surgery, the company found new life in addressing a common problem—bad breath.

  2. Effective Marketing is a Game-Changer: The success of Listerine's repositioning underscores the power of effective marketing. A well-crafted campaign not only revived the product but also created an entirely new market.

  3. Reinvention is a Key to Longevity: Listerine's journey emphasizes that reinvention can be key to longevity. Rather than clinging to its original purpose, the product evolved to meet the demands of a different audience.

…And Another Thing

Yup. The Happy Accidents podcast is launching soon. Check out the intro video below and make sure you subscribe to my YouTube channel so you don’t miss an episode.

The podcast will also be available on Apple and Spotify. Stay tuned for more on that soon…

Hey, Dennis Geelen here. Author of the Happy Accidents newsletter.

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