After acid attacks, Harpic attacks acid

By Ashwini Gangal , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | September 16, 2013
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In its most recent spurt of ads, Harpic appears to be taking the opportunity, created by the Supreme Court ruling in July against unregulated use of acid, to attack traditional toilet cleaning options.

When two events occur in close succession, onlookers tend to assume a causal link between them. Consider this: Recently, in a bid to prevent acid-related crimes, the Supreme Court passed a ruling directing states and union territories to frame rules to regulate the sale of acid. Also, as per the ruling, an acid attack is to be treated as a non-bailable offence.

The new Harpic TVC

The new Harpic TVC

Akhil Chandra

Soon after, toilet cleaning brand and reigning category leader, Harpic, released an advertising campaign explicitly comparing the benefits of the product vis-à-vis other cheaper, unbranded substitutes such as fragranced phenyl and - no points for guessing - acid.

Lakhs of people across the nation who've been using acid to clean their toilets may soon be inconvenienced by the SC ruling. Suddenly, they are all ripe targets for Harpic. And, the brand appears to have taken the first opportunistic step against its notorious nemesis.

Going forward, afaqs! learns, the brand will continue to educate consumers about the harmful effects of using what it terms 'generic products' such as acid. "Generic products like acid, bleaching powder and phenyl still account for 25 per cent of the households in urban India alone," reveals Akhil Chandra, managing director, Reckitt Benckiser India, manufacturer of Harpic.

The primary target group (TG) for Harpic comprises homemakers in SEC A, B, and C, across geographies. "For a brand like Harpic, opportunities exist across the country and are not restricted to a specific region," Chandra says.

However, when it comes to 'converting' users of acid and other generic products to Harpic, the brand is faced with an interesting region-specific challenge: While the problem is a nationwide one, brand research indicates that in North India, people predominantly use acid for cleaning toilets while down South, the usage of both phenyl and bleaching powder is rampant.

In its recent TVCs, Harpic has attacked both acid and phenyl with equal gusto. This makes sense. Imagine a scenario where the ad attacks acid alone and consequently gets users of acid (consumers in North India) to switch to phenyl instead of Harpic! Also, attacking acid alone would be like talking to only one half of the nation. Attacking phenyl ups the odds of getting users of phenyl (consumers in South India) to switch to Harpic, too.

Either way, the pertinent question is 'why'. Why do people use generic products like acid - is it primarily a price issue? Over to Reckitt's Chandra: "Price is definitely one of the key reasons, as acids and bleaches cost a lot less," he answers, "At the same time, owing to lack of awareness about smarter and safer solutions in the market, they have kept toilet cleaners low in their priority list while upgrading other elements in their households as per latest standards."

Chandra adds, "Be it mobile phones, kitchen appliances, automobiles or electronic gadgets, a large set of consumers in rural as well as urban India, have upgraded their lifestyle by incorporating the latest technology and buying the latest products across these categories. But when it comes to toilet cleaning, they still use rudimentary methods," particularly, acid for its perceived cleansing properties and phenyl for its perceived ability to kill germs and spread fragrance.

Speaking of price, here's a quick comparison: Harpic is available in 200ml, 500ml, 750ml and 1000ml units, priced between the range of Rs 27-117. So, a litre of Harpic costs Rs 117. A litre of acid costs Rs 25 to 35, sometimes Rs 40. Of course, one of the selling propositions of brands like Harpic is that users need to eject very little liquid per use, thus making one bottle last long. Even so, the basic price difference is huge. Surprisingly, a litre of phenyl costs around Rs 140 to 160 -- more than Harpic. But here's probably where the explanation lies: unlike Harpic, small amounts of phenyl are diluted in large amounts of water before use, thus making the liquid last longer than the same quantity of Harpic.

Therefore, rather than focusing on market competition (other toilet cleaning brands) in its ads, Harpic chooses to focus on category competition (unbranded substitutes). The idea is to create awareness about the category in the hope that people will "upgrade" to Harpic. "We want to build this category across the country. There is a strong need to educate a large segment of consumers who still resort to outdated and unsafe options for toilet cleaning," Chandra says.

A caustic effort?

Shripad Nadkarni

Industry observers feel the SC ruling will be a tremendous boost to all manufacturers of toilet cleaners. About the timing of Harpic's ad campaign, Shripad Nadkarni, co-founder, MarketGate Consulting, tells afaqs! that it certainly doesn't look like a coincidence. However, he points out that the Supreme Court's ruling against acid is not a widely publicised one. "Only a small group of consumers will be privy to this. So timing is not such a big thing in this case. Unless they clearly state in their ad: 'This is banned because it is harmful and Harpic is better', not many may make the connection," he reasons. The print ad (see image), he admits, is a little more direct in its messaging than the TVCs.

About the campaign itself, Nadkarni particularly appreciates Harpic's 'All-in-One' idea. Since the reason acid was regulated has nothing to do with its efficacy in toilet cleaning, taking on acid as one among many other similar elements, is deemed a good value proposition. If the ruling against acid was in some way related to its household use (say, it was found to be dangerously corrosive to the toilet surface) then maybe taking on acid alone would've been a viable option.

Will the SC ruling increase Harpic's sales? "Yes, it will," Nadkarni predicts but cautions that it won't be a complete conversion right way. Typically, people switch categories very gradually and mostly when they're forced to. So in this case, given the sudden inaccessibility of acid, they may start out by exploring other similar alternatives like bleach before slowly trying out products like Harpic.

And this will happen in stages - first occasional, then regular use. We can expect people to start using brands like Harpic occasionally (that is, for special occasions, say, when guests are coming or maybe just once a week) before moving on to regular use. "First there are 'early triers' who slowly grow to form an 'early majority'," explains Nadkarni. The latter term refers to evolved consumers who have regularly started using a product from a new category.

In fact, many categories follow this growth cycle. This is how it worked when shampoo first entered India; people who otherwise washed their hair with soap would use shampoo only for special occasions, say before an important function. Same for sanitary napkins; women who normally used cloth would use branded napkins only while going out. Over time, people get used to the benefits of using the branded item and switch to regular use.

What next?

The speed of mass conversion to branded toilet cleaners will depend on what leading players in the category do next. "The brand needs to single-mindedly drive penetration now," recommends Nadkarni, speaking about Harpic. Typically, this is how it works: People who're yet to convert, don't like to buy the full bottle, partly because of the price differential and partly because they are not fully convinced about switching from their regular product. In such a scenario, doing something that aids easy sampling comes highly recommended.

"Something like single-use sachets may work in this category. It will help drive short-term, occasional usage," he says. Marketers of oats have done this in India by making small-sized, low-price sachets available. For Harpic, from an SEC-standpoint, an effort like this would work best if done in a top-down manner (A to B and so on), say experts. Categories such as shampoo and detergent have successfully used low-unit sachets in the past and continue to do so. In fact, CavinKare was the first to market shampoo (Chik) in sachet form. Today, it is available in Re 1/50 paise sachets across the nation. The company was also the first to sell items like talcum powder and Epsom salt in 100 gm, 50 gm and 20 gm sachets when others only sold bottles/large packets.

While leveraging the SC ruling seems like a smart move, there exists a converse view. Harpic has many enemies: germs, competing brands (for instance HUL's Domex, Dabur Balsara's Sanifresh and CavinKare's Tex, among others) and cheap substitutes like acid. Since the legal authorities have inadvertently taken care of one enemy, perhaps it makes strategic sense for Harpic to shift focus to the others. After all, this is a category that readily lends itself to comparative advertising of the split-screen variety.

MarketGate's Nadkarni offers, "The question the brand will have to now ask itself is -- 'What is the strongest motivator for consumers to shift to Harpic?' and accordingly decide the focus of its subsequent ads."

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