Aishwarya Ramesh

From tech-backed powder to dissolving pods, the journey of the laundry detergent segment…

Is the laundry detergent segment in India having a moment? Is it possible to innovate in this saturated space? We explore…

Detergent is an integral part of our lives, irrespective of whether you’re a teenager living with your parents, or a bachelor managing a job and living alone – everyone needs clean clothes, after all. The laundry detergent category has come a long way in India.

Nirma introduced one the first powder and bar detergents in India way back in 1969. The brand came in at a time when there were very few domestic players in the detergent market.

Washing powder Nirma’s jingle is one that many 1990s kids still recall. Nirma gave tough competition to Hindustan Unilever’s Surf Excel, which came up with an ad featuring ‘Lalitaji’ – a housewife who was looking for a value for money product. (The late) Alyque Padamsee is credited with writing the ad that went on to create advertising history in India.

Then came Tide’s ‘White stripe' ad - which showed the difference between Tide and other whitening detergents. Tide's powder detergent product was first introduced in India in September 2001 (when Tide was relaunched here) through two ads (‘lady dries linen' and ‘man wears shirt'). Both the ads were shot in Chile by Leo Burnett's Mumbai team in tandem with their Chilean counterparts, using the original director and crew.

"This was purely to get the groundwork straight – to understand the techniques they used to get the pack to streak across and to get the 'stripe' right," Kumuda Rao independent creative brand consultant (Ex Group executive creative director, Leo Burnett) reveals. A ‘demo' ad explaining how Tide offers superior whiteness followed.

The category’s messaging has also evolved. It’s no longer about an ad with a split screen, wherein one brand’s efficacy is being compared to another’s. There are messages about home, family, wellness, and even doing good.

Recently, we’ve seen quite a bit of innovation in this segment – beyond bars and powders. There have also been innovations in format, with the introduction of products such as Tide and Ariel pods.

There has also been evolution in the constituents of the product itself, with brands like Surf Excel claiming to have ‘super soak technology’.

Is the laundry detergent segment in India having a moment, in terms of innovation and messaging? We spoke to a few experts to find out…

Nisha Sampath, a brand marketing consultant with 20-plus years of experience, points out that the days of 'Lalitaji' were the ones when brands were carving out differences by benefit. For example, Rin helps wash white clothes, Nirma washes the toughest stains, Surf is the best value for money, etc.

“Today, however, the detergent market has matured, with clear target segments etched out, like mass, mid-premium, premium and super-premium (matics, pods, etc). In this market, the scope of product differentiation is reducing. In fact, even mass, cheaper brands can offer a better wash than they did earlier.”

Sampath adds that users are also sampling products at different price points and understanding the benefits, thanks to sachets and lower price SKUs. It’s no longer a necessity to educate the consumers on the benefits of the category.

Nisha Sampath
Nisha Sampath

“The penetration of detergents is very high. The future growth for brands depends either on share gain from another brand, or upgradation from mass brands. Hence, the differentiation of brands today is through the brand idea and brand purpose.”

Sampath explains that as of now, the category is cluttered and (has) low involvement, hence, viewer engagement is important. Brands are trying to make ads that etch themselves into people’s minds and hearts. She recalls that Ghadi did a series talking about cleansing the dirt in the heart. Surf, as a category leader, started the trend with ‘Daag achhe hain’.

“I think that the brands are also differentiating through a certain user imagery. India is a young country, with huge number of young users entering the category. These users view the laundry category very differently from the older generation. They value sensorials, eschew drudgery, and place less emphasis on pure and simple ‘paisa vasool’.”

Talking about product diversity, Sampath points out that one of the biggest silent success stories in laundry has been of fabric conditioner.

“Comfort, which was around for ages, gave itself a new avatar as a post-wash product offering long-lasting fragrance, and has been lapped up by the consumers. In a purely functional category, a product that offered no functionality – just a great fragrance – was picked up by the consumers. This illustrates my point about users today seeking more aspirational, lifestyle benefits from the category.”

She opines that like many other categories, the detergent category is seeking to lift itself out of the old category codes and into a modern world, where brand storytelling is more important than product attributes.

At the same time, the category is seeing a lot of innovation at the top end – like pods, specialised liquids for top load versus front load machines, etc. She adds that the fact that they are coming in, illustrates that the brands believe the market is now evolved enough that such niche super-premium products can find their niche.

Sampath says that the new scope for innovation lies in areas like sustainable detergents, organic, or chemical free offerings. But these again are niche. She believes there are big opportunities in solving problems with laundry ‘outside the bucket’ – example, on the go stain removal, reducing creasing, stain protective coating, etc. This will offer fresh territory for ideation, and can be occupied even by smaller brands with lesser spends than the big FMCG giants.

Rajesh Gangwani, a former adman (with over 27 years of experience in the industry, having worked with J Walter Thompson, etc.) and a branding and communication consultant, recalls that the story of laundry communication has moved from the split screen to the ‘reframe’.

Rajesh Gangwani
Rajesh Gangwani

From focusing on competitive claims (brighter, whiter, shinier tougher cleaning) to a point of view on modern parenting (Surf excel - ‘Daag acche hain’), gender equality (‘Share the Load’) and self-worth (‘Chamakte Rehna’ - Radiant/Rin).

He also points to Surf Excel’s ‘Daag acche hain’ campaign, calling it one of the best examples of an ad showing a rational product as well as emotional benefit.

“The ad integrated the two beautifully, while reframing the whole notion of stains being dirty to being good. It’s the quintessential ‘big idea’ that has stood the test of time and has been refreshed wonderfully through the festive campaigns (Holi).”

Gangwani adds that even the ‘Share the Load’ campaign has struck a chord, especially amongst the urban audience in the COVID pandemic scenario.

“The proposition is more relevant than ever, now that everyone in the family has to pitch in. One can easily see the campaign stretch across time and multiple expressions as it touches a very core human need of togetherness and support.”

When asked about the scope for innovation in this category, Gangwani opines that ‘new and improved’ is the holy grail of FMCG advertising and it’s not going anywhere.

“Brands will continue to push the lever on delivering high standards of clean as strong reassurance of their value for money credentials. (The pods, for instance, are justifying their premium through the 3-in-1 benefit.)”

He summarises by saying that the true differentiator in this category, like many others, is the emotional resonance brands have with consumers. If the emotional lock in is strong for what are essentially habit-driven purchases, the entry barriers are going to be high for new competition.

“On a lighter note... clothes have not been a key focus for us in the last year due to the WFH scenario. Maybe we need to have a cheekier response from the brands to keep them relevant and connected with the consumers,” Gangwani signs off.

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