Olay originated in South Africa as Oil of Olay. Graham Wulff, an ex-Unilever chemist from Durban, started it in 1949. The name “Oil of Olay” was chosen by Wulff as a spin on the word “lanolin”, a key ingredient.
Olay is a product truly born from love, as it was created by a man as a gift for his wife. In the 1950s, chemist Graham Wulff saw his wife Dinah’s frustration with the thick, waxy beauty creams that came in shoe-polish tins. They left her skin looking greasy, and they certainly didn’t fit with her feminine sensibility. Graham wanted to create a new beauty product for her—one that could not only moisturize her skin, but also leave her feeling beautiful and feminine.
Together, Graham and Dinah fine-tuned everything from absorption and texture to the delicate pink shade and instantly recognizable fragrance. At last, the legendary Oil of Olay Beauty Fluid was born. It was unique in the early days because it was a pink fluid rather than a cream, packaged in a heavy glass bottle.
With his formula complete and the first batch mixed by hand, Graham enlisted the help of an advertising agency that he found in the Yellow Pages. Account executive Jack Lowe quickly became Graham’s lifelong friend and business partner, and the two soon created a company to produce and market Oil of Olay. Wulff and Jack Lowe, a former copywriter, had tested the product on their wives and friends and were confident in its uniqueness and quality.
Olay’s marketing was also unique, since it was never described as a moisturizer, nor even as beauty fluid. Nowhere on the packaging did it say what the product actually did. Print adverts used copy such as “Share the secret of a younger looking you” and talked about the ‘beauty secret’ of oil of Olay. Other adverts were written as personal messages to the reader from a fictitious advice columnist named Margaret Merril. They ran in Readers’ Digest and newspapers and often looked like editorials.
Wulff and Lowe, who ran the company under the banner of Adams National Industries (ANI), did not sell the product to the trade, but waited for pharmacies to ask for it based on consumer requests.
Within five years, Olay was enjoying phenomenal success in South Africa, and in 1959 expanded into England, the United States, the Netherlands, Canada and Germany. Needless to say, the Olay business flourished.
As the company began to market the product internationally, it was decided to modify the name of the product in each country so it would sound pleasing and realistic to consumers. This led to the introduction of Oil of Ulay (UK and Ireland), Oil of Ulan (Australia) and Oil of Olaz (France, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany). In 1999, it was decided to unify the brand under a global name. Thus, Oil of Ulan and Ulay became Olay on a worldwide basis, except in German-speaking regions and Italy, where it remained Oil of Olaz. In the Netherlands and Belgium, it was renamed just Olaz.
In 1970, ANI opened a test market in USA (Chicago), and was expanding into northern Germany. Eventually, Olay was sold to Richardson Merrill, which later became Richardson-Vicks. In 1985, Procter & Gamble bought Richardson-Vicks and gained the Olay brand. In 2000, Procter & Gamble decided to shorten the brand name to Olay. The formula had evolved over the years, and the original name no longer fit with what women have come to expect from Olay—a light, greaseless formula that absorbs quickly into the skin.
Today, Olay is one of the most recognizable brands in the world. Yet through all the changes and innovations, the philosophy upheld by Graham Wulff remains just as relevant as ever: Help women look and feel beautiful. That’s a potent formula for success.
My mom was red-headed with very sensitive German skin in a hot African climate. She also chain-smoked and when she was young had a garden fork go through her face (she was helping her brother clean graves at a cemetery. When they were climbing over the wall she went first and he threw the fork over the wall. It went prongs-first through her face).
When I was 10 she handed me a bottle of Oil of Olay (exactly like the one below) and said ‘look at my face. If you don’t want to look like this, you must use Oil of Olay every day). I was so motivated that, to this day, I am fanatical about looking after my skin. I can’t say whether it has helped but I find the skincare ritual very soothing and calming.