Abid Hussain Barlaskar and Aishwarya Ramesh

What made OTC skincare brand Sebamed attack HUL's star soaps Lux, Dove and Pears?

In conversation with Konark Gaur, Sebamed India’s marketing head, we break it down one piece at a time. The ad war of soap pH levels has turned into a legal battle.

What do you do if you have a mass market ready product languishing in a niche category? This was precisely the state of Sebamed for almost a decade of its presence in India.

The over 50-year-old German skincare brand was introduced in India in 2007 as an OTC (over-the-counter) medication by Mumbai-based pharma company USV.

Until around a couple of years back, Sebamed found mention only in the prescriptions of dermatologists. Around 2018-19, the company realised that there was a rather large opportunity in the over Rs 20,000 crore Indian soap market and decided to test the waters with smaller influencer led marketing initiatives.

Sebamed started 2021 with a rather loud bang, ambushing its would be rivals Dove, Pears, Santoor and Lux, in its 360 degree ad campaign #SebamedScienceKiSuno. The brand’s ad films highlight that most beauty soaps have high pH levels, which are harmful for the skin. They go on to mention that Sebamed maintains a ‘perfect’ pH level of 5.5. But, why’s 5.5 perfect?

Scientific studies suggest that healthy human skin has a pH (potential of hydrogen) range of 5.4-5.9. Soaps with high pH cause an increase in skin pH levels, which in turn dehydrates skin, causes irritations and infections.

The shots were fired from the shoulder of the government quality watchdog National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL). The ads carry a disclaimer that the claims were substantiated by an NABL accredited laboratory.

The campaign also hits out at the traditional code of beauty soap advertising, where brands are recommended by top celebrity endorsers. The ad copy “Filmstars ki nahi, science ki suno,” ousts the movie star and puts the white-coated lab technician in charge.

Konark Gaur, India head of marketing for Sebamed, tells afaqs! that the current marketing goal is to drive awareness around the soap’s ‘skin friendly pH’ proposition. It is also to generate trials outside its prescription usage and usual brand loyalists.

Gaur started his brand marketing career with Nestle in 2004. Over the years, he founded his own beauty salon Jazz Up Salon, and worked with organisations, like General Mills. He joined Sebamed India in May 2019.

Konark Gaur
Konark Gaur

Sebamed’s efforts may already be bearing fruit since there has been a spike in online search for pH levels of Sebamed, Lux, Pears and Dove.

With this, the brand also hopped out of its niche OTC/medicare/prescription category and into the mainstream FMCG bucket. Gaur mentions that the shift ties back to Sebamed’s business objective of driving business growth in the coming years.

“Our proposition is based on science and can be easily verified and demonstrated. We will continue to invest in brand building across ATL, BTL and digital mediums.”

However, unlike colour, fragrance and texture, pH level as a proposition is a lesser known and complex benefit... Like, say, a fairness/beauty soap makes one ‘beautiful/fairer’, or an ‘almond-enriched’ soap makes the skin soft. But, what good does a pH soap do? Wait, what is pH? How is it pronounced?

These questions are relevant since Sebamed’s ‘massy’ rivals have built themselves on simpler brand propositions. Even the mass premium soap Dove’s ‘good pH level’ proposition is only a small part of its larger ‘beauty’ positioning.

Gaur agrees that to land the ‘pH’ proposition in consumers’ minds in a market as large and diverse as India, is a challenge. The brand is considering its advertising and marketing investments accordingly.

"Want to make a paradigm shift in the personal care industry."

“We also want to make a paradigm shift in the way the personal care industry has been working. We want to start a new vocabulary, which is based on pH levels of products and tell people that pH 5.5 is ideal for sensitive skin. It’s a start.”

The focus currently is on tapping top Indian cities. Sebamed could soon be seen in local kirana stores, alongside the native Cinthols and Santoors. Says Gaur, “Sebamed is present in leading supermarkets in major cities, and we aim to continue to push our distribution.”

Also, the wide spectrum of brands attacked (both pricing and proposition wise) is Sebamed's way of stating that it's better than all the soap brands out there.

The shift in the product segment also causes ripples in multiple aspects of the brand. While upfront, the TG and competition widens, it affects pricing, packaging, distribution and even the composition of the products.

True to the OTC segment, which includes soaps, like Cetaphil, Neko and others, Sebamed’s packaging, colour code, etc., are sanitised and rather functional. On the prospects of a possible revamp, Gaur affirms that the brand will stick to its current stance, but will also continue to monitor consumer feedback in the future.

On the pricing front, Sebamed’s 100 gram soap bar sells for a premium price of Rs 99 and its face cleansing variant sells for Rs 189 (also 100 gm). Sebamed’s OTC rival Cetaphil is priced at Rs 179 for 75 gm and its new FMCG opponent Dove sells at Rs 50 for 100 gm.

What made OTC skincare brand Sebamed attack HUL's star soaps Lux, Dove and Pears?

It is worth noting that a major chunk of FMCG volumes in India is driven by smaller, lower-priced SKUs. As HUL top boss Sudhir Sitapati mentions in his book ‘The CEO factory’, over half of Dove’s users have been ‘low-income’ consumers, who use lower-priced SKUs (Rs 20 for 50 gm).

Defending Sebamed’s higher price point (against other FMCG rivals), Gaur mentions that the brand doesn’t have plans to revise its prices at the moment. “We believe that the quality is far more important, and that consumers are actively seeking healthier solutions. There is an increased interest in science-based products. We feel that it is a valid price point.”

"We believe that the quality is far more important... consumers are actively seeking healthier solutions."

Sebamed has a fairly wide range of products. The brand has close to 150 products across its skincare, baby care and men’s care portfolios – from after-shave balm to baby lotion. Skin-friendly pH is an underlying thread across products.

Speaking about the choice of soap bar segment for its FMCG entry, Gaur says, “We will be focusing on the soap bar, since it's part of a product category that has very high penetration in the country. We are trying to have a dialogue with our consumers and will gradually unfold our communication for other products.”

However, a giant like HUL wouldn’t just sit tight, post the ambush. The brand quickly refuted the claims around Dove in a follow-up campaign. The company also approached the Bombay High Court with the issue and secured an order restraining Sebamed from airing its commercials (on Monday, January 11, 2021).

Given the experience of industry veterans Kawal Shoor and Navin Talreja, who crafted Sebamed’s campaign (at The Womb), it doesn’t come as a surprise that the campaign broke during the latter half of Friday (January 8, 2021). Whether it was a well-thought-out strategy or a mere coincidence, any legal action had to wait till the following Monday (yesterday, January 11).

“We are confident of our claims and have our facts ready.”

Speaking about the imminent backlash from HUL, Gaur says that the intention was never to disparage other brands, but to simply educate consumers. “We are confident of our claims and have our facts ready.”

The news of HUL’s legal bouncer broke after Gaur’s interview with afaqs! was conducted. On the Bombay High Court’s order, a Sebamed company spokesperson said, “Our claims are based on solid science, and we have robust information and data points to back it up. We have not been served any court order as yet. We are a responsible organisation and abide by the law of the land.”

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