I recently found out just how much there is to envy at Procter & Gamble's headquarters in the Cincinnati area, where the beauty and household care giant enlists more PHD scientists than M.I.T., Harvard and Stanford combined.
With all of those smart genes hatching plans under one roof, you can just imagine the complexity of tests the brainiacs invent to put everything from shampoo to lipgloss to deodorant through their paces in order to beat out the competition.
Due to a proprietary agreement I had to sign before stepping in, I can't divulge every detail.
In the very labs that just churned out Pantene's massive product reformulation and transformation, I spied a microscopic zoom camera utilizing thermal technology so strong that the U.S. State Department outlaws it from leaving the country, which they would classify as illegal "trafficking of arms."
The visual intelligence behind the camera is so advanced, the only stronger version available is used exclusively by the U.S. military.
P&G scientists painstakingly analyzed samples of real hair treated with competitive products under the lens, in order to create what they claim is a superior line of haircare whose benefits you can literally see under that kind of intense microscopic scrutiny.
The cost of that single shiny piece of equipment? A cool $65,000.
Pantene is sold around the world, and the North American plant makes all of the shampoo, while conditioner is made in Japan and styling aids in Germany .
With conditions varying wildly from country to country (for example, Americans think of a hair 'cold rinse' as 60 degrees, while Canadians think the very same thing is closer to 40 degrees), Pantene creates a formula distinct to each market so that the product will foam, lather, cleanse and style specific to those conditions.
I also saw a machine that lathered up hair strand testers, where scientists were carefully studying the difference between fluffy light and creamy lathers.
"Our lather machine is named 'Allie' because we're all dorks here and have to come up with a special name for every single machine," explained scientist Teca Gillespie.
Gillespie also described the bustling shampoo-making room featuring a labyrinth of ceiling and floor tubes as "the Willy Wonka factory," which I thought was spot-on.
In the fragrance room where the scent of clean hair is agonized over and perfected, I learned that the fruity-sweet scent of Herbal Essences' Long Term Relationship line was modeled after the Britney Spears fragrance Hidden Fantasy -- which features the sweet-citrus mixture of cotton candy, tangerine, grapefruit, lily and jasmine.
And if you're wondering what that yummy new Pantene scent is made up of, it's blackberry plum, gardenia, violet, white orchid, tuberose and the two essentials that produce that 'clean' scent -- heartwoods and musk.
In the CoverGirl labs, I learned that only 15% of women select the right foundation shade for themselves at the drugstore. The most common mistake? Women tend to go too light.
In other news, P&G is making aggressive sustainability moves that will work towards greater environmental and social responsibility in their products.
"The essential idea is that there can be absolutely no trade offs, either environmentally or beauty-wise. The consumer will not sacrifice results, and will only use environmentally-friendly products if they work just as good and aren't more expensive. You don't buy lipstick to save the world, you buy it because you love the color," said P&G's sustainability expert Jennifer Rushmore.
Many times, the greatest environmental impact of a product doesn't even come from the manufacturing or disposal. A full 80% of the environmental impact of shampoo is the hot water used in the shower, according to P&G – who says they have successfully lowered the carbon footprint of each of their products by an average of 30% in the last six years.
And all of those extra batches of product that don't pass market testing don't just get thrown out -- they're recycled in the most creative ways. For instance, extra shampoo is sold to car wash companies, while moisturizers are often bought by luxury leather goods companies to restore the shine and health of leather.
The most revolutionary example of innovative 'recycling' is a powder P&G accidentally found in experiments that turned out to purify even the muddiest of waters. The product it was blended into ended up being a bust in terms of sales, but the powder showed such tremendous humanitarian potential on its own that P&G began their Children's Safe Drinking Water initiative, which distributes the powder to people in third world countries and disaster zones so that they have access to clean drinking water.
P&G promises to donate four billion liters in water total by 2012.
The highlight of my visit was a tour through the archives, where P&G keeps detailed histories of all of its brands with artifacts acquired in part from places like eBay.
The beauty geek in me could have lingered over the displays for days.
Among the most offbeat finds was a book of old Hollywood hair locks featuring actual strands from stars like John Wayne that was kept by Max Factor so he could custom-blend wigs that matched his silver screen clients perfectly. Yes, John Wayne was apparently a victim of the receding hairline.
The first-ever Old Spice was displayed -- which believe it or not, was a women's fragrance named "Early American Old Spice."
And the portrait of the first Ivory baby circa 1886 drew a barrage of twit pic-taking from fellow visitors, who were more than just a little freaked out by what they dubbed the "sexy man-baby."
It makes you wonder what the world will think of our current ad campaigns 100 years from now; will our tastes be seen as just as odd?
I have a feeling that either way, the P&G labs will still be humming on.