Illustration: Calvin Rambler

Remember when gum came in a stick? These days, an explosion of shapes, sizes, and flavors occupy convenience store shelves. For that, thank America’s largest gum maker, the 115-year-old William Wrigley Jr. Company.

The Chicago company now sells gum in nearly 20 incarnations, including brands that soothe your throat and whiten your teeth. Wrigley’s hottest product, the inch-long tab gum Orbit, promises something that once only a dentist could deliver: a cleaner, brighter mouth.

The sudden, industry-shaking success of Orbit, which Wrigley launched in 2001, owes a lot to good timing and creative marketing, including 14 clever commercials produced by the company’s longtime advertising partner, Chicago’s BBDO. It is the fastest-growing gum in the United States, raking in $169 million in U.S. sales last year, according to Information Resources, and second in domestic sales only to another sugarless Wrigley product, Extra. (Wrigley controls about 62 percent of the gum market.)

Orbit capitalizes on the current fixation with oral hygiene, reflected in the popularity of such drugstore items as electric toothbrushes, whitening strips, and breath freshening sprays. The Wrigley gum, relying on seven intense flavors such as peppermint, spearmint, and the recently introduced Citrusmint, promises to deliver the sensation of having just brushed your teeth. Another three flavors, all dubbed Orbit White, also claim to whiten teeth by two shades. “Consumers are looking for ways to whiten their teeth and clean their mouth, without having to go to the dentist’s office,” says Ralph Scozzafava, Wrigley’s managing director of North America.

Wrigley has actually used the Orbit name in other countries for the past 30 years, though overseas the brand has little similarity to its newer American iteration. In Russia today, Orbit is a stick gum, like Juicy Fruit. In Europe, it’s a pellet gum, like Chiclets. But the brand never took off in the United States, despite several attempts, until Wrigley researchers in the late 1990s engineered a gum to create the feeling of a freshly brushed mouth. Wrigley plucked the Orbit name from its American hibernation and, says the company’s Scozzafava, “it’s been a rocket ride ever since.”

The packaging-a distinctive, shrink-wrapped cardboard envelope-is a big part of its popularity. Scozzafava says that Wrigley and its consultants developed the unusual casing after researching exotic product designs in countries such as Japan. “We scoured the earth, looking at lots of different elements and picking the best of the breed,” he says. The packaging is also useful from a marketing standpoint: the front provides seven unhindered square inches of space, on which Wrigley displays the Orbit logo in a stylishly boxy font-a standout on crowded candy shelves.

Then there are the bizarre TV ads, which feature a saucy Brit named Vanessa, another departure from the company’s conventional fare (remember the Doublemint twins?). In a recent clip, a hapless Western tourist, walking through the jungle and fiddling with his video camera, gets attacked by a monstrous fly-eating plant. After the plant snares the man’s hairpiece in its teeth, it flashes a luminous smile-it has apparently chewed Orbit to refresh its fouled mouth. Vanessa appears, and quips, “For a good, clean feeling, no matter what.”

Orbit’s strong performance couldn’t have come at a better time for Wrigley. The overall gum market is sluggish at best, and the international expansion that fueled Wrigley’s growth in the 1980s and ’90s is reaching its natural conclusion. William Wrigley Jr., grandson of the founder, tried and failed to buy his rival Hershey in 2002, and last fall opened a local “Global Innovation Center” on Goose Island, devoted to expanding into the wider confectionery market.

“Wrigley is a reasonably conservative company trying to become more edgy,” says Bob Goldin, executive vice president of the Chicago-based food industry consulting firm Technomic. With Orbit, it seems to be relaxing just enough to run circles around the competition.