Robert Taylor, put hand soap in a bottle; at 77

Mr. Taylor’s company introduced Softsoap in 1978.
Paul Drake/Globe Staff
Mr. Taylor’s company introduced Softsoap in 1978.

NEW YORK — Robert R. Taylor — a serial entrepreneur who popularized hand soap from a pump, gambling $12 million to prevent competitors from duplicating it, and fragrances like “Obsession,” which he advertised with artful eroticism — died on Aug. 29 in Newport Beach, Calif. He was 77.

The cause was cancer, his daughter Lori Lawrence said.

Mr. Taylor built and sold 14 consumer products businesses during a long career, starting in 1964 with Village Bath Products, a company he founded with $3,000 to sell scented, hand-rolled soap balls through gift shops. Working initially out of his garage, he was soon selling more than 100 products through department stores.


The entrepreneur’s life is precarious, and Mr. Taylor had to stay ahead of consumer products giants, such as Procter & Gamble and Lever Bros., which could move with overpowering force after one of his products proved successful.

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In 1978, Mr. Taylor’s company, Minnetonka, introduced Softsoap, inspired by Taylor’s pondering the mess that a bar of soap quickly makes in the dish. He started it with a $7 million ad campaign, and took another precaution to forestall competition from the giants: he ordered 100 million of the little pumps from the only American manufacturers, a year’s worth of inventory, paying 12 cents apiece, according to the Harvard Business Review. The $12 million purchase was a bet-the-company strategy, but it paid off. It was more than a year before other large companies could match his product.

Mr. Taylor was constantly trying new businesses and products, using hard-won expertise in marketing to create product demand, often before they were available in stores.

Taylor family/Associated Press

In 1985, Mr. Taylor’s company introduced Obsession by Calvin Klein, a fragrance for women, with ads that for years would create a sensation. They were minimovies, a kind of existentialist noir, all shadow and strings and word salad. In one, actors spoke such lines as, “When she devoured my very soul, when I had nothing left to surrender, she abandoned me to the wreckage of myself — and smiled.” Print ads showed the waifish model Kate Moss topless or nude.

A New York Times columnist said the ads “are nearly as steamy as R-rated movies,” and the campaign was lampooned on “Saturday Night Live,” which showed a woman obsessively scrubbing her home. It ended with the lines “Somewhere between cleanliness and godliness lies Compulsion, the world’s most indulgent disinfectant. From Calvin Kleen.”


“He loved it,” Lawrence said of her father. She recalled him saying, “That’s called free advertising!”

She recalled the ups and downs of her childhood. “He’d buy a Rolls-Royce, and we’d be living large,” she said. “Next thing you know, I was going to be going to private school, and then I’m going to public school — and you roll with it.”

The family, she said, would talk over products at the dinner table. She recalled squirting soap paste onto a baking sheet with her father to experiment with “soap puffs,” which would be baked and dropped into her evening bath.

In 1987, Minnetonka sold Village Bath, Softsoap, and Sesame Street Bath Products brands to Colgate-Palmolive. Unilever bought the rest of the company two years later for $376 million. Mr. Taylor went on to found Graham Webb International, which sells beauty products to salons. He sold it in 2001 to Wella.

Robert Ridgely Taylor was born in Baltimore and grew up in Cincinnati. He graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and earned an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Before starting his own companies, he worked for Johnson & Johnson.


In 1980, he married the former Mary Kay Meneough. Besides Lawrence and his wife, he leaves another daughter, Karen Brandvold, and six grandchildren. A son, David, was killed in an avalanche near Alta, Utah, in 1984. An earlier marriage, to Alice Bovard-Taylor, ended in divorce.

Mr. Taylor was as hard-charging outside business: During family vacations, a printed itinerary would be placed on each person’s bed.

While going through her husband’s papers, Mary Kay Taylor found handwritten notes under the heading “What you need to be a successful entrepreneur.” One item advised, “Unique idea — fill a gap!” Another said, “A plan — success is a matter of attitude.”

Of building businesses, he wrote, “Each one gets easier — never easy.”