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How Sensodyne charted its place in India’s $1.8 billion oral care market

In a conversation with afaqs!, Bhawna Sikka, Haleon’s category head, breaks down the brand’s marketing strategy to take on the Indian oral care market.

The Indian oral care market is a category of multiple legacy brands offering products from mouthwashes to toothpastes. As such, the competition amongst the major oral care brands has birthed a great deal of marketing contests, leading up to some iconic advertising campaigns over the years.

Consequently, the category has seen significant growth over the years, with an estimated value of $1.8 billion in 2023, according to market research platform Statista. As per an HDFC securities report, toothpastes rack up around 70% share of this market. 

Oral care brand Sensodyne was launched in India in 2011. The brand, owned by consumer health company Haleon, aimed to chart its place in the mix of tough competitors. 

The toothpaste industry is dominated by a select few brands, such as Colgate, Pepsodent, Closeup, Dabur and Patanjali. Many of these have been in the industry for several decades. Most of the success that these brands have enjoyed over the years, can be credited to their advertising prowess.

When you think of toothpaste ads, you’re likely to recollect Colgate’s ‘Toothpaste Me Namak’, Pepsodent’s Shah Rukh Khan-starrer ‘Germi-Check’ or Closeup’s iconic jingle ‘Kya Aap Closeup Karte Hain?’

But Sensodyne, which leads the sensitive segment of toothpaste category in India, as per the HDFC report, hasn’t spent much on celebrity-driven commercials or fancy jingles. In fact, the brand has consistently been riding the wave of clinical representations, with a lot of ‘white coat’ endorsements, to push its message. 

Interestingly, after the initial success of the brand, the toothpaste industry saw the genesis of a separate denomination for sensitivity toothpastes, prompting brands like Colgate to launch their own dedicated product range under Colgate Sensitive.

More importantly, the brand has managed to create an aura of ‘medicare’ - around tooth sensitivity, within the consumer healthcare businesses. 

Bhawna Sikka, category head, oral healthcare, Haleon, reveals that before the brand’s launch, the plan was to specify the need and then provide the solution.

Bhawna Sikka
Bhawna Sikka

The company’s entire product line caters to Indians who suffer from sensitive teeth, something other oral care brands hadn’t identified prior to Sensodyne, she adds.

When Sensodyne arrived, we identified the problem, created awareness about it and provided a solution through our toothpaste. This exercise built a lot of trust amongst consumers.

“For the longest time, toothpaste conversations have been driven by two things, cavities and freshness. These two subsets of oral health, between aesthetics and good teeth, dominated the industry’s narrative. We went a level deeper and identified the problem of tooth sensitivity.”

“Statistics, both at our end and that of the Indian Dental Association, show that about 70% of Indians are aware about sensitivity. So, when Sensodyne arrived, we identified the problem, created awareness about it and provided a solution through our toothpaste. This exercise built a lot of trust amongst consumers.”

To market such a product comes with many creative challenges. The brand’s core fundamentals in marketing its products, have relied on a peculiar marketing strategy.

TV still remains the most efficient way for us to reach the maximum number of people. We have made sure that we are present on digital platforms because that's kind of where the consumers are.

Sikka opines that a big part of Sensodyne’s success can be attributed to the brand’s minimal changes to the original proposition. 

“We have a different brand persona, and have been consistent with it, which is a big part of our success. Our message, in terms of the problem that we solve, is clear. That (internal) promise is visible through our advertising as well.”

After their continuous dentist centric campaigning, the brand faced complaints for their ads, due to the prohibition of white-coat endorsements in the country. Sensodyne was finally asked to discontinue their previously run advertisements by the Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) in January last year.

The brand has since been undertaking social campaigns in partnership with the Indian oral care fraternity. More recently, Sensodyne concluded its campaign titled ‘Be Sensitive to Oral Health’, to spread awareness amongst consumers about the necessity of oral hygiene. 

The campaign saw Sensodyne set up 500 dental camps to create awareness about basics of dental hygiene and oral care in 70 cities in all four regions of India, targeting around 5,000 patients.

From a media mix point of view, the brand is actively participating in all channels at its disposal. 

She says, “TV still remains the most efficient way for us to reach the maximum number of people. We have made sure that we are present on digital platforms because that's kind of where the consumers are. Besides this, we are also present across OTT, print and radio platforms. I think the media mix as opposed to 10 years ago now, is not as static as it used to be.”

After Sensodyne toothpaste, the brand also launched other products to upsell and cross-sell with the flagship offerings. The Sensodyne inventory now also includes toothbrushes, and other toothpaste variants under its entry-level ‘Essential Care’ range, including Sensodyne Rapid Relief. 

Commenting on the brand's distribution strategy, Sikka opines that the endeavour is ongoing, like any other FMCG brand. 

“We’re making sure that we’re present wherever the consumer is - whether it’s grocery stores, chemists, e-commerce platforms, modern trade outlets, etc. The plan is to make sure that we’re available at more outlets every year.”

For Gauri Chaudhari, co-founder Brand Innerworld, a healthcare brand consultancy, a new entrant in the space of toothpaste would essentially have to lock horns with Colgate. That, in her opinion, is a dead end since Colgate holds a big chunk of oral care pie in India. 

Gauri Chaudhari
Gauri Chaudhari

“Colgate has its presence everywhere, with the promise of strong teeth. They have their products for all age groups, including teens and elderly. Sensodyne, having done its market research before the launch, knew it couldn’t have gone the Unilever way. Fortunately for them, the sensitivity market in India turned out to be enormous.”

For Sensodyne to build a distinct identity, the brand proposition had to be unique, and clear, as per Chaudhari. Instead of competing with the Daburs and Colgates of the industry, the entire portfolio of the brand was confined to the walls of sensitivity. But the advertising journey the brand embarked had a lot to do with its origins, she opines.

GlaxoSmithKline, a multinational pharma company that birthed Haleon, has had its marketing imprints on Sensodyne, Chaudhari points out. 

“GSK is known for its serious pharma business. So, the DNA for any brand that stems from GSK invokes a direct connection within the consumer’s mind from a clinical or medical standpoint. The strategy, therefore, would not have worked for any other brand except for Sensodyne.”

Given the clear problem-solution proposition of the brand, Chaudhari highlights that the brand has no reason to go the entertainment route for their messaging. “So, white-coat endorsements made all the sense. Although in India hiring doctors for advertisements is not permissible, so they had to let go of that. But the brand managed to retain the clinical aura of the brand, where it caught Colgate napping.”

Praful Akali, founder and MD, Medulla Communications is of the opinion that the entire category of sensitive toothpaste is clinical than the rest of the toothpaste industry. “There is a clear problem in terms of the sensitive category. Compared to other toothpaste subcategories that aim for stronger and preventive teeth, here the consumer has a real problem. Therefore, often within this subcategory, consumers rely on recommendations of dentists, or on brands that speak the same language.”

Praful Akali
Praful Akali

Prior to Sensodyne, there were other pharma companies that had launched their toothpastes for this category, such as Sensodent, but the products were promoted at dentists. Interestingly, Sensodyne entered the category and directed their product to consumers directly, and were the first to do so.

This had a lot to do with the kind of strategy the brand has employed to target consumers, as per Akali. He says, “The marketing communication for Sensodyne makes complete sense, because the brand, in a way, enjoys a monopoly in the category.”

“The strategy for clinical problems, especially for brands like Sensodyne, is the reliance on expert advisory. This is why their advertisements carry the clinical recommendations. Consumers are more comfortable with such communications in any clinical category.”

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