Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Soap Opera: Can Sebamed put HUL on a slippery ground?

The German personal care brand has rolled out a bold advertising campaign taking on HUL. The soap queen, though, is firmly entrenched

Rajiv Singh
Published: Jan 12, 2021 03:22:13 PM IST
Updated: Jan 13, 2021 09:55:03 AM IST

Soap Opera: Can Sebamed put HUL on a slippery ground?Illustration: Chaitanya Dinesh Surpur

Let’s start with solid. On the Richter scale, an earthquake of 5.5 is billed as ‘moderate’. It does slight damage to buildings and other structures. Every year, seismologists estimate, around 500 such moderate quakes rock the world. The verdict: Such quakes can be survived. 

Cut to liquid, and gas. On a pH scale—used to measure the acidity or basicity of an aqueous solution—5.5 is deemed to be perfect. When this scale is used in the dog-eat-dog world of advertising, it can be explosive. Remember ‘Bina gas waala deo’ Fogg? The brand’s ‘without gas’ positioning not only disrupted the segment but also the way consumers looked at deo brands. On a scale of 10, the brand scored full points, in communications and market share. More recently, remember ‘added sugar’ in honey? Well, it also disrupted the way consumers look at honey brands. The jury, though, is yet to be out on the market share impact.

Cut to January 2021. The first month of the New Year has started with a big bang marketing and advertising war. The fight, of course, is not between equals. German personal care brand Sebamed, present in India since 2007, has used the weapon of pH 5.5 to the daddy of all soap brands in India: HUL.

The idea is simple, and apparently innocuous: The advertising campaign is designed to make consumers aware of the pH level of their bathing soap. A pH of 5.5, Sebamed claims, is best suited for human skin. What is caustic, though, is not comparing Dove, Lux and Pears—all HUL brands—with Sebamed, which again claims to have a perfect 5.5. What might hurt the soap Queen is when all the beauty brands of HUL are contrasted with detergent brand Rin—another one from the HUL stable. Dove has a pH of 7; Pears has a pH of 10; Lux too scores a perfect 10; and now comes Rin. The detergent brand also tops the pH chart with 10.

Advertising and marketing experts are loving it. Reason: Finally, the soap segment got disrupted. Think of salt (does it have iodine), toothpaste (does it have salt) or any other segment where marketers started talking about what’s inside the pack. Content became more important than packaging. The world of soap, interestingly, always focussed on beauty and associated ingredients such as milk and cream. Post-Covid, soaps added another layer: Protection from germs and some herbal and ayurvedic ingredients, which again can’t be verified by the naked eyes.

pH is an advertising masterstroke. “It (commercial) has put a finger into the eyes of the competitor,” says Harish Bijoor, who runs an eponymous brand consulting firm. The German brand, he adds, has proved that the status quo can be shaken with a strong story. And the story is pH. The communication, he lets on, is brilliant, pointed, and in the eye. Sebamed, Bijoor underlines, has come up with two-pronged plan: Tactical and strategic. Contrasting the science of pH with the non-science of advertising is tactical. “The comparison is gory, and that’s the beauty of this advertising,” he says. If only Sebamed had confined itself by comparing a Lux or Santoor to itself, it would have been okay. “5.5 versus 10 is very potent,” he says.

Meanwhile, Shashi Ranjan, India head of Sebamed, contends that the commercial is to create awareness among users. “Our brand stands for trust and transparency. We have just enabled consumers to make an informed choice,” he says. The campaign, he stresses, is not against any particular brand. Sebamed, Ranjan explains, has been a pioneer in the world in talking about pH 5.5. When we have accepted the parameter for normal body temperature (98.4 degree) and blood sugar level and blood pressure, then why can’t we know what’s normal for skin, which happens to be one of the biggest organs, he argues. “We just want to make people aware that the skin has a standard pH which is 5.5,” he says.

A positioning of 5.5, interestingly, has made Sebamed gain acceptance in India for its baby care products. “We are now the third biggest in the baby care segment in terms of value market share,” he claims, declining to share the number. For a brand, which has always taken the prescription route, going direct to consumers by taking on the leader is a bold gambit. “Our claims are based on solid science and we have robust information and data points to back it up,” he says. 

HUL, for its part, has retaliated with a strong message. “Dermatologists,” the FMCG major underlines in its latest commercial, “have put something unusually strong in the Dove bar: Their trust.” Dove, the commercial claims, is the number one brand recommended by dermatologists and is milder and suitable for the most sensitive skin. 

FMCG experts reckon that in spite of the disruptive advertisement by Sebamed, the soap queen won’t be on a slippery ground. The reasons are many. First, and most crucial is, pricing. A 100 gm soap of Sebamed is priced at Rs 245 on Flipkart. “This is five times the price of Dove,” says Abneesh Roy, executive vice president at Edelweiss Securities. HUL, he points out, dominates body soaps in India with around 40 percent market share. Second is reach, and retail footprint. While HUL straddles the segment across price points with multiple brands, it also has the most extensive physical retail distribution with dominance extending on ecommerce and modern trade. Third is high entry point for new soap players such as high loyalty in personal care, entry barriers of distribution and high advertising budgets. In India, Roy underlines, value proposition is paramount even in premium-end and most Indians will find Sebamed very expensive. Though the disruptive commercial might lead to better awareness of Sebamed among people—the German brand is almost unknown—the question to ask is will a large consumer base shift towards it because of the pH proposition. “We don’t think so,” he says. Comparative advertisements in FMCG happen on a regular basis but distribution, pricing and relevant claims are most important parameters for long term market share, he adds.  

Looks like pH 5.5 might not have sufficient intensity—beyond a mild tremor—to hit the soap queen. Well, the drama has just begun.