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 like Procter & Gamble and Lever Bros., which could move into the market with overpowering force after one of his products proved successful.
In 1978, his company, Minnetonka, introduced Softsoap, inspired by Mr. 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 introducing products and trying new businesses, and using hard-won expertise in marketing to create demand for products, often before they were even available in stores.
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 mini-movies, 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 columnist for The New York Times fretted that 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," Ms. Lawrence said of her father. She recalled him saying, "That's called free advertising!" She remembered the financial 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."
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 Sept. 1, 1935, 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.