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Soap wars: New narrative

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It has been years since there was a battle in the soaps category between a challenger brand and incumbent big brands. Sebamed is the new David in the soap wars, using science as a weapon to win the hearts, minds and pockets of a segment of Indian consumers.

After its high-decibel attacking campaign and permission from the Mumbai High Court, to run the ad, with a few changes, Round 1 has been won by Sebamed. But the question is: Will it reshape consumer perception and the soaps category itself?

Four positions

Soap is a product used for personal hygiene by all in India. It is likely to have a 99 per cent penetration across urban and rural India and by people at the top and bottom of the social class ladder.

In terms of positioning, soap brands use four broad concepts and claims. The first is hygiene-health (Lifebuoy, Dettol, Savlon, and even Cinthol). Soaps in this category claim to have ‘germ-kill’ ingredients and show family usage, anchored on young boys mainly, though there are other narratives. The second is beauty (Lux, Santoor, Vivel and many others). This label is a misnomer as these soaps sell mainly on fragrance and a no-harm to skin promise which is expressed in exaggerated terms using the vocabulary of skin creams. Most packs feature images of the fragrance source — sandal, rose, etc.

The third is skin care (Pears, Dove and similar). These are more expensive soaps that claim to have a stronger presence of skin care ingredients such as glycerine or vitamin E. They typically have a unique appearance and a different in-use experience. Finally, there are the ‘natural-herbal-ayurvedic’ soaps such as Medimix, Chandrika, Hamam, which have regional appeal. These sell on a mix of tradition, beauty and hygiene in various combinations. The packaging of the soaps and their fragrances have been modernised to appeal to today’s consumers.

Disrupting the equilibrium

Over the decades, the dynamics of soap usage in families have changed — from a single soap for the family to individual soaps for each family member and from soap bars to face washes and so on. The big brands have responded to these shifts by expanding their product portfolio.

Sebamed’s campaign seeks to shake up the equilibrium in the category, by forcing consumers to question their trust in established brands. The purchase of soap is subject to inertia and habit. Hence, the perceived need for a radical campaign by a challenger brand. However, this raises a question: As Indians, how do we place our trust in brands and how do we come to believe their claims of superiority, ingredients and performance?

Our cultural conditioning moves us towards direct sensory proof followed by social consensus as the evidence to trust our choices. Sensory proof is based on a physical examination of the product in terms of its looks, smell, sound, taste, and touch. Personal experience of using the product is the final proof, validated by social consensus.

This socio-sensory approach is strengthened by knowledge and faith in the source — be it tradition/heritage (elders can’t be wrong), scale of the brand (big brands can’t cheat) and personal affinity (I like it a lot, so I trust).

Science and scientific proof plays a limited or non-existent role in this process of trust and belief formation. And this holds, irrespective of education levels.

In the Bombay High Court’s verdict, the court has said that there is no scientific evidence to prove that the soaps made by other brands are unsafe or unfit for consumer use. The advertising can claim that Sebamed has the ideal PH at 5.5 for healthy skin but not that it is the safest because of PH alone.

A new narrative

No harm and non-toxicity in daily use products that are used on skin is a basic requirement enforced by law. Greater faith that goes beyond what the law requires is offered by brands that claim to be authentically natural/herbal/ayurvedic. Ideal skin care is a narrative that blends facts with hope and imagination to hook the consumer.

In the construction of the narrative, the PH of 5.5 moves from being a scientific fact to an actant. This shift is indicated by the brand itself, when it says, ‘Stars ki mat suno, Science ki suno’.

Sebamed’s campaign might draw the attention of adults with sensitive skin or mothers of infants. In this evaluation of choices, stronger contenders could be the ayurvedic and medicinal-natural soap brands. Through this route, a soap that costs Rs 99 for 100 grams could yet make a market for itself.

But in addition to making a market for itself, if Sebamed succeeds in creating a ‘no-harmful chemicals’ segment among Skincare soaps, it would be a new development in an age-old product category.

The ‘no-harmful chemicals/no-harm’ products segment has grown rapidly in skin creams and hair care with a new genre of organic, environmentally-aware ecommerce driven brands exploding in this space. This segment is yet to make an entry in the soaps category. Sebamed could be the brand that catalyses the growth of this segment in soaps. Whether it succeeds in doing so, only time will tell.

(The author is a semiotician and brand consultant, and founder of Leapfrog Consulting)



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